A Laymen’s Commentary on the Augsburg Confession: What the Church Is

This is part 9 of 16 in the series A Layman's Commentary on the Augsburg Confession

Article VIII: What the Church Is.

1] Although the Church properly is the congregation of saints and true believers, nevertheless, since in this life many hypocrites and evil persons are mingled therewith, it is lawful to use Sacraments administered by evil men, according to the saying of Christ: The Scribes and 2] the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, etc. Matt. 23:2. Both the Sacraments and Word are effectual by reason of the institution and commandment of Christ, notwithstanding they be administered by evil men.

3] They condemn the Donatists, and such like, who denied it to be lawful to use the ministry of evil men in the Church, and who thought the ministry of evil men to be unprofitable and of none effect.

The Church is an article of faith as the Creed confesses.  There are two churches, the Visible and Invisible Church.  The Visible Church is the church we see, while the Invisible Church is only the true believers in Christ.  The Invisible Church also includes those saints who have passed into glory (Matthew 13:24-30).

The Visible Church is full of unbelievers and believers, both in orthodox and heterodox congregations.  The Lutheran Church claims that it is the True Visible Church on Earth (TVCE) in that we confess right doctrine and administer the Sacraments properly.  We also confess that we have hypocrites in our midst. Likewise, we confess that other denominations have true Christians in them as well even though the church body in question is heterodox.

We even have pastors who are hypocrites. In Jesus’s day in spite of the fact that the Scribes, Pharisees, and Priests were hypocrites the sacrifices administered by them and the Word preached by them was still efficacious.  Same with pastors today who are hypocrites. The Sacraments and the Word are efficacious because of God’s Word not because of the sanctity of the pastor (Matthew 23).

This is in opposition to Donatism (4th Century heresy) which believed that the ministry of men who later fell away from the faith was not efficacious.  They held the same for a pastor who had sinned publicly.  Again, just because evil men handle the Sacrament and Word does not mean that the Word or Sacrament was not efficacious.  It is still what it is. An evil man speaking the truth, still speaks the truth regardless of human flaws. After all, the truth is not dependent on the one who says it or exercises it.

The Confutation rejects Article VII but approves Article VIII.  Which is odd given the following:

1] The Seventh Article of our Confession, in which we said that the Church is the congregation of saints, they have condemned, and have added a long disquisition, that the wicked are not to be separated from the Church since John has compared the Church to a threshing-floor on which wheat and chaff are heaped together, Matt. 3:12, and Christ has compared it to a net in which 2] there are both good and bad fishes, Matt. 13:47. It is, verily, a true saying, namely, that there is no remedy against the attacks of the slanderer. Nothing can be spoken with such care that it can escape detraction. 3] For this reason we have added the Eighth Article, lest any one might think that we separate the wicked and hypocrites from the outward fellowship of the Church, or that we deny efficacy to Sacraments administered by hypocrites or wicked men. Therefore there is no need here of a long defense against this slander. The Eighth Article is sufficient to exculpate us. For we grant that in this life hypocrites and wicked men have been mingled with the Church, and that they are members of the Church according to the outward fellowship of the signs of the Church, i.e., of Word, profession, and Sacraments, especially if they have not been excommunicated. 4] Neither are the Sacraments without efficacy for the reason that they are administered by wicked men; yea, we can even be right in using the Sacraments administered by wicked men. For Paul also predicts, 2 Thess. 2:4, that Antichrist will sit in the temple of God, i.e., he will rule and bear office in the Church. 5] But the Church is not only the fellowship of outward objects and rites, as other governments, but it is originally a fellowship of faith and of the Holy Ghost in hearts. [The Christian Church consists not alone in fellowship of outward signs, but it consists especially in inward communion of eternal blessings in the heart, as of the Holy Ghost, of faith, of the fear and love of God]; which fellowship nevertheless has outward marks so that it can be recognized, namely, the pure doctrine of the Gospel, and the administration of the Sacraments in accordance with the Gospel of Christ. [Namely, where God’s Word is pure, and the Sacraments are administered in conformity with the same, there certainly is the Church, and there are Christians.] And this Church alone is called the body of Christ, which Christ renews [Christ is its Head, and] sanctifies and governs by His Spirit, as Paul testifies, Eph. 1:22 sq., when he says: And gave Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, 6]the fulness of Him that filleth all in all. Wherefore, those in whom Christ does not act [through His Spirit] are not the members of Christ. This, too, the adversaries acknowledge, namely, that the wicked are dead members of the Church. Therefore we wonder why they have found fault with our description [our conclusion concerning the Church] 7] which speaks of living members. Neither have we said anything new. Paul has defined the Church precisely in the same way, Eph. 5:25f , that it should be cleansed in order to be holy. And he adds the outward marks, the Word and Sacraments. For he says thus: Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish. In the Confession we have presented this sentence almost in the very words. Thus also the Church is defined by the article in the Creed which teaches us to believe that there is a holy Catholic Church. 8] The wicked indeed are not a holy Church. And that which follows, namely, the communion of saints, seems to be added in order to explain what the Church signifies, namely, the congregation of saints, who have with each other the fellowship of the same Gospel or doctrine [who confess one Gospel, have the same knowledge of Christ] and of the same Holy Ghost, who renews, sanctifies, and governs their hearts.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession Articles VII and VIII (IV) 1-8

So the contention that the Confutation brings up is for naught.  However, there is something deeper here. What Rome defines the Church to be is not what Article VII confesses but rather:

23] But the adversaries perhaps require [a new Roman definition], that the Church be defined thus, namely, that it is the supreme outward monarchy of the whole world, in which the Roman pontiff necessarily has unquestioned power, which no one is permitted to dispute or censure [no matter whether he uses it rightly, or misuses it], to frame articles of faith; to abolish, according to his pleasure, the Scriptures [to pervert and interpret them contrary to all divine law, contrary to his own decretals, contrary to all imperial rights, as often, to as great an extent, and whenever it pleases him; to sell indulgences and dispensations for money]; to appoint rites of worship and sacrifices; likewise, to frame such laws as he may wish, and to dispense and exempt from whatever laws he may wish, divine, canonical, or civil; and that from him [as from the vicegerent of Christ] the Emperor and all kings receive, according to the command of Christ, the power and right to hold their kingdoms, from whom, since the Father has subjected all things to Him, it must be understood, this right was transferred to the Pope; therefore the Pope must necessarily be [a God on earth, the supreme Majesty,] lord of the whole world, of all the kingdoms of the world, of all things private and public, and must have absolute power in temporal and spiritual things, and both swords, the spiritual and temporal. 24] Besides, this definition, not of the Church of Christ, but of the papal kingdom, has as its authors not only the canonists, but also Daniel 11:36ff. [Daniel, the prophet, represents Antichrist in this way.]

25] Now, if we would define the Church in this way [that it is such pomp, as is exhibited in the Pope’s rule], we would perhaps have fairer judges. For there are many things extant written extravagantly and wickedly concerning the power of the Pope of Rome, on account of which no one has ever been arraigned. We alone are blamed, because we proclaim the beneficence of Christ [and write and preach the clear word and teaching of the apostles], that by faith in Christ we obtain remission of sins, and not by [hypocrisy or innumerable] rites of worship devised by the Pope. 26] Moreover, Christ, the prophets, and the apostles define the Church of Christ far otherwise than as the papal kingdom. 27] Neither must we transfer to the Popes what belongs to the true Church, namely, that they are pillars of the truth, that they do not err. For how many of them care for the Gospel, or judge that it [one little page, one letter of it] is worth being read? Many [in Italy and elsewhere] even publicly ridicule all religions, or, if they approve anything, they approve such things only as are in harmony with human reason, and regard the rest fabulous 28] and like the tragedies of the poets. Wherefore we hold, according to the Scriptures, that the Church, properly so called, is the congregation of saints [of those here and there in the world], who truly believe the Gospel of Christ, and have the Holy Ghost. And yet we confess that in this life many hypocrites and wicked men, mingled with these, have the fellowship of outward signs, who are members of the Church according to this fellowship of outward signs, and accordingly bear offices in the Church [preach, administer the Sacraments, and bear the title and name of Christians]. Neither does the fact that the Sacraments are administered by the unworthy detract from their efficacy, because, on account of the call of the Church, they represent the person of Christ, and do not represent their own persons, as Christ testifies, Luke 10:16: He that heareth you heareth Me. [Thus even Judas was sent to preach.] When they offer the Word of God, when they offer the Sacraments, they offer them in the stead and place of Christ. Those words of Christ teach us not to be offended by the unworthiness of the ministers.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession Articles VII and VIII (IV) 23-28

As we can see the Roman position is not in accord with Scripture.  Rather the Roman position is that the Pope is the head of the church and thus makes the church the church.  This is still Rome’s position today as you can basically believe anything so long as you submit to the Pope.  The Confutation also condemns the statement that for true unity of faith, practices do not need to be the same everywhere.  To this Melancthon responds as follows:

30] The adversaries condemn also the part of the Seventh Article in which we said that “to the unity of the Church it is sufficient to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments; nor is it necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by men should be alike everywhere.” Here they distinguish between universal and particular rites, and approve our article if it be understood concerning particular rites; they do not receive it concerning universal rites. [That is a fine, clumsy distinction!] 31] We do not sufficiently understand what the adversaries mean. We are speaking of true, i.e., of spiritual unity [we say that those are one harmonious Church who believe in one Christ; who have one Gospel, one Spirit, one faith, the same Sacraments; and we are speaking, therefore, of spiritual unity], without which faith in the heart, or righteousness of heart before God, cannot exist. For this we say that similarity of human rites, whether universal or particular, is not necessary, because the righteousness of faith is not a righteousness bound to certain traditions [outward ceremonies of human ordinances] as the righteousness of the Law was bound to the Mosaic ceremonies, because this righteousness of the heart is a matter that quickens the heart. To this quickening, human traditions, whether they be universal or particular, contribute nothing; neither are they effects of the Holy Ghost, as are chastity, patience, the fear of God, love to one’s neighbor, and the works, of love.

32] Neither were the reasons trifling why we presented this article. For it is evident that many [great errors and] foolish opinions concerning traditions had crept into the Church. Some thought that human traditions were necessary services for meriting justification [that without such human ordinances Christian holiness and faith are of no avail before God; also that no one can be a Christian unless he observe such traditions, although they are nothing but an outward regulation]. And afterwards they disputed how it came to pass that God was worshiped with such variety, as though, indeed, these observances were acts of worship, and not rather outward and political ordinances, pertaining in no respect to righteousness of heart or the worship of God, which vary, according to the circumstances, for certain probable reasons, sometimes in one way, and at other times in another [as in worldly governments one state has customs different from another]. Likewise some Churches have excommunicated others because of such traditions, as the observance of Easter, pictures, and the like. Hence the ignorant have supposed that faith, or the righteousness of the heart before God, cannot exist [and that no one can be a Christian] without these observances. For many foolish writings of the Summists and of others concerning this matter are extant.

33] But just as the dissimilar length of day and night does not injure the unity of the Church, so we believe that the true unity of the Church is not injured by dissimilar rites instituted by men; although it is pleasing to us that, for the sake of tranquillity [unity and good order], universal rites be observed, just as also in the churches we willingly observe the order of the Mass, the Lord’s Day, and other more eminent festival days. And with a very grateful mind we embrace the profitable and ancient ordinances, especially since they contain a discipline by which it is profitable to educate and train the people and those who are ignorant [the young people]. 34] But now we are not discussing the question whether it be of advantage to observe them on account of peace or bodily profit. Another matter is treated of. For the question at issue is, whether the observances of human traditions are acts of worship necessary for righteousness before God. This is the point to be judged in this controversy, and when this is decided, it can afterwards be judged whether to the true unity of the Church it is necessary that human traditions should everywhere be alike. For if human traditions be not acts of worship necessary for righteousness before God, it follows that also they can be righteous and be the sons of God who have not the traditions which have been received elsewhere. F. i., if the style of German clothing is not worship of God, necessary for righteousness before God, it follows that men can be righteous and sons of God and the Church of Christ, even though they use a costume that is not German, but French.

35] Paul clearly teaches this to the Colossians 2:16-17: Let no man, therefore, judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy-day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days, which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. Likewise, 2:20-23 sqq.: If ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances (touch not; taste not; handle not; which all are to perish with the using), after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have, indeed, a show of wisdom in will-worship and humility. 36] For the meaning is: Since righteousness of the heart is a spiritual matter, quickening hearts, and it is evident that human traditions do not quicken hearts, and are not effects of the Holy Ghost, as are love to one’s neighbor, chastity, etc., and are not instruments through which God moves hearts to believe, as are the divinely given Word and Sacraments, but are usages with regard to matters that pertain in no respect to the heart, which perish with the using, we must not believe that they are necessary for righteousness before God. [They are nothing eternal; hence, they do not procure eternal life, but are an external bodily discipline, which does not change the heart.] And to the same effect he says, Rom. 14:17: The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness 37] and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. But there is no need to cite many testimonies, since they are everywhere obvious in the Scriptures, and in our Confession we have brought together very many of them, in the latter articles. And the point to be decided in this controversy must be repeated after a while, namely, whether human traditions be acts of worship necessary for righteousness before God. There we will discuss this matter more fully.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession Articles VII and VIII (IV) 30-37

Why do we maintain the traditional liturgy?  It is not for the sake of righteousness but rather for piety.  We do it because of our confession about what the Church is.  Namely catholic.  Thus to confess the unity we keep the Church’s traditions since time immemorial.

After all, we have the maxim “lex orandi, lex credendi”.  The pattern of action speaks to the pattern of doctrine. We cannot divorce doctrine and practice.  One confesses the other and vice-versa. To jettison the traditional liturgy is to lose the wealth of our fore-bearers.  This liturgy which has developed over the past 5,000 years has been built stone by stone by each successive generation. To lose that loses the clear confession of catholicity in using and the wonderful Gospel contained therein.  It is hard to conceive of any modern reinvention to be superior to that combined effort. That is not to say that contemporary worship is bad or people are sinning by using it. Not at all. Rather this is a question of confession, what confesses the truth better.  It is not a mere taste issue.

Thus we do not bind consciences on styles of practice or dress so long as they do not actually violate clear Scripture.  Anything that is an innovation of man can be adjusted. Our faith is not tied to it but rather to the unchanging Word and Sacrament.  Take for example what the Reformers actually did, they adjusted practice just enough to remove those things that confessed falsely. This should be our rule too, so long as tradition does not violate Scripture, we should hold to it and not change it to suit our whims.

1 Built on the Rock the Church shall stand
Even when steeples are falling.
Crumbled have spires in ev’ry land;
Bells still are chiming and calling,
Calling the young and old to rest,
But above all the soul distressed,
Longing for rest everlasting.

2 Surely in temples made with hands
God, the Most High, is not dwelling;
High above earth His temple stands,
All earthly temples excelling.
Yet He who dwells in heav’n above
Chooses to live with us in love,
Making our bodies His temple.

3 We are God’s house of living stones,
Built for His own habitation.
He through baptismal grace us owns
Heirs of His wondrous salvation.
Were we but two His name to tell,
Yet He would deign with us to dwell,
With all His grace and His favor.

4 Here stands the font before our eyes,
Telling how God has received us;
Th’altar recalls Christ’s sacrifice
And what His Supper here gives us.
Here sound the Scriptures that proclaim
Christ yesterday, today, the same,
And evermore, our Redeemer.

5 Grant then, O God, Your will be done,
That, when the church bells are ringing,
Many in saving faith may come
Where Christ His message is bringing:
“I know mine own, My own know Me,
You, not the world, My face shall see.
My peace I leave with you. Amen.”

(LSB 645)

About Dr. Paul Edmon

Dr. Paul Edmon is from Seattle, Washington and now resides in Boston, Massachusetts. He has his B.S. in Physics from the University of Washington in 2004 and Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Minnesota in 2010. He is professional staff at Harvard University and acts as liaison between Center for Astrophysics and Research Computing. A life long Lutheran, he is formerly a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle and University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis. He now attends First Lutheran Church (FLC) of Boston where he teaches Lutheran Essentials. He sings bass in the FLC choir and Canto Armonico. He was elected to the Concordia Seminary St. Louis Board of Regents in 2016. He is single and among his manifold interests are scotch, football, anime, board games, mythology, history, philosophy, and general nerdiness. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent Harvard University or Concordia Seminary. Twitter: @pauledmon

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