A Laymen’s Commentary on the Augsburg Confession: Distinction of Meats

This is part 27 of 30 in the series A Layman's Commentary on the Augsburg Confession

Article XXVI: Of the Distinction of Meats.

1] It has been the general persuasion, not of the people alone, but also of those teaching in the churches, that making Distinctions of Meats, and like traditions of men, are works profitable to merit grace, and able to make satisfactions for sins. And that 2] the world so thought, appears from this, that new ceremonies, new orders, new holy-days, and new fastings were daily instituted, and the teachers in the churches did exact these works as a service necessary to merit grace, and did greatly terrify men’s consciences, if they should omit any of these things. 3] From this persuasion concerning traditions much detriment has resulted in the Church.

4] First, the doctrine of grace and of the righteousness of faith has been obscured by it, which is the chief part of the Gospel, and ought to stand out as the most prominent in the Church, in order that the merit of Christ may be well known, and faith, which believes that sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake be exalted far above works. Wherefore Paul also lays 5] the greatest stress on this article, putting aside the Law and human traditions, in order to show that Christian righteousness is something else than such works, to wit, the faith which believes that sins 6] are freely forgiven for Christ’s sake. But this doctrine of Paul has been almost wholly smothered by traditions, which have produced an opinion that, by making distinctions in meats and like services, 7] we must merit grace and righteousness. In treating of repentance, there was no mention made of faith; only those works of satisfaction were set forth; in these the entire repentance seemed to consist.

This Article is broader than just distinctions between meats. It includes all human traditions that are thought to justify.  These include not only fasting but keeping holy days, pilgrimages, relics, etc.

The first and chief objection is the confusing of these traditions with justification.  This we have already discussed at length. The issue is not the tradition itself but rather that it is given the ability to justify.  Regardless of if the tradition is thought to justify or not, tradition is a matter of Christian freedom.  However, we should not use our freedom to cause a weaker brother to stumble (Romans 14).

8] Secondly, these traditions have obscured the commandments of God, because traditions were placed far above the commandments of God. Christianity was thought to consist wholly in the observance of certain holy-days, rites, fasts, and vestures. These 9] observances had won for themselves the exalted title of being the spiritual life and the perfect life. Meanwhile the commandments of God, according to 10] each one’s calling, were without honor namely, that the father brought up his offspring, that the mother bore children, that the prince governed the commonwealth,—these were accounted works that were worldly and imperfect, and far below those glittering observances. And this error greatly tormented 11] devout consciences, which grieved that they were held in an imperfect state of life, as in marriage, in the office of magistrate; or in other civil ministrations; on the other hand, they admired the monks and such like, and falsely imagined that the observances of such men were more acceptable to God.

In the second place, the traditions concocted by men superseded God’s own Law.  It was thought that being a monk or doing extraordinary works for the Church or doing works that the Church ordained were superior to simply living one’s life and doing one’s vocation.  This is simply not true.  God is pleased with us when we do our vocation, no matter of lowly it may seem.  We do not have to be some sort of super saint. Rather God finds us acceptable in Christ, not because of any works.

12] Thirdly, traditions brought great danger to consciences; for it was impossible to keep all traditions, and yet men judged these observances to be necessary acts of worship. Gerson writes that many fell 13] into despair, and that some even took their own lives, because they felt that they were not able to satisfy the traditions, and they had all the while not heard any consolation of the righteousness of faith and 14] grace. We see that the summists and theologians gather the traditions, and seek mitigations whereby to ease consciences, and yet they do not sufficiently unfetter, but sometimes entangle, consciences even more. 15] And with the gathering of these traditions, the schools and sermons have been so much occupied that they have had no leisure to touch upon Scripture, and to seek the more profitable doctrine of faith, of the cross, of hope, of the dignity of civil affairs of consolation of sorely tried consciences. 16] Hence Gerson and some other theologians have grievously complained that by these strivings concerning traditions they were prevented from giving attention to a better kind of doctrine. Augustine also forbids that men’s consciences should be burdened 17] with such observances, and prudently advises Januarius that he must know that they are to be observed as things indifferent; for such are his words.

Third, it troubled consciences.  One could not keep God’s Law or these required traditions either.  So it burdened the conscience even more severely as justification was obscured and the conscience was turned towards legalism.  More time was spent preaching these man-made works than on the Gospel.

18] Wherefore our teachers must not be looked upon as having taken up this matter rashly or from hatred of the bishops, 19] as some falsely suspect. There was great need to warn the churches of these errors, which had arisen from misunderstanding the traditions. 20] For the Gospel compels us to insist in the churches upon the doctrine of grace, and of the righteousness of faith; which, however, cannot be understood, if men think that they merit grace by observances of their own choice.

21] Thus, therefore, they have taught that by the observance of human traditions we cannot merit grace or be justified, and hence we must not think such observances necessary acts of worship. 22] They add hereunto testimonies of Scripture. Christ, Matt. 15:3, defends the Apostles who had not observed the usual tradition, which, however, evidently pertains to a matter not unlawful, but indifferent, and to have a certain affinity with the purifications of the Law, and says, Matt. 15:9, In vain do they worship Me with the commandments of men. 23] He, therefore, does not exact an unprofitable service. Shortly after He adds: Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man. So also Paul, Rom. 14:17: 24]The kingdom of God is not meat and drink. 25] Col. 2:16: Let no man, therefore, judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy-day, or of the Sabbath-day; also: If 26]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! And Peter says, Acts 15:10: Why 27] tempt ye God to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ 28] we shall be saved, even as they. Here Peter forbids to burden the consciences with many rites, 29] either of Moses or of others. And in 1 Tim. 4:1,3 Paul calls the prohibition of meats a doctrine of devils; for it is against the Gospel to institute or to do such works that by them we may merit grace, or as though Christianity could not exist without such service of God.

Thus the Reformers have spoken out against and gotten rid of many of these harmful traditions, such as the distinction of meats.  Instead, they preach justification by grace alone through faith alone.  The traditions of men should not supersede the Law of God.  Faith is the critical part; not doing the work.  We should not burden people with needless ceremonies making them think that they must do them to be saved (Matthew 15:1-20, Acts 15:1-28, Colossians 2:16-23, 1 Timothy 4:1-5).

30] Here our adversaries object that our teachers are opposed to discipline and mortification of the flesh, as Jovinian. But the contrary may be learned 31] from the writings of our teachers. For they have always taught concerning the cross that it behooves Christians to bear afflictions. This is the true, 32] earnest, and unfeigned mortification, to wit, to be exercised with divers afflictions, and to be crucified with Christ.

33] Moreover, they teach that every Christian ought to train and subdue himself with bodily restraints, or bodily exercises and labors that neither satiety nor slothfulness tempt him to sin, but not that we may merit grace or make satisfaction for sins by such exercises. 34] And such external discipline ought to be urged at all times, not only on a few and set days. So Christ commands, 35] Luke 21:34: Take heed lest your hearts 36] be overcharged with surfeiting; also Matt. 17:21: This kind goeth not out but 37] by prayer and fasting. Paul also says, 1 Cor. 9:27: I keep under my body and bring it into subjection. 38] Here he clearly shows that he was keeping under his body, not to merit forgiveness of sins by that discipline, but to have his body in subjection and fitted for spiritual things, and for the discharge of duty according 39] to his calling. Therefore, we do not condemn fasting in itself, but the traditions which prescribe certain days and certain meats, with peril of conscience, as though such works were a necessary service.

40] Nevertheless, very many traditions are kept on our part, which conduce to good order in the Church, as the Order of Lessons 41] in the Mass and the chief holy-days. But, at the same time, men are warned that such observances do not justify before God, and that in such things it should not be made sin if they be omitted without offense. 42] Such liberty in human rites was not unknown to the Fathers. 43] For in the East they kept Easter at another time than at Rome, and when, on account of this diversity, the Romans accused the Eastern Church of schism, they were admonished by others 44] that such usages need not be alike everywhere. And Irenaeus says: Diversity concerning fasting does not destroy the harmony of faith; as also Pope Gregory intimates in Dist. XII, that such diversity does not violate the unity of the Church. 45] And in the Tripartite History, Book 9, many examples of dissimilar rites are gathered, and the following statement is made: It was not the mind of the Apostles to enact rules concerning holy-days, but to preach godliness and a holy life [to teach faith and love].

The Roman Catholics accused the Reformers of being antinomian and against tradition.  This is not true. The Reformers simply removed those traditions that were harmful and corrected the understanding of people about the rest.  The discipline taught by tradition is good.  However, we must bear the crosses given to us, not put crosses on people that they do not have to have.  There are enough crosses in this life to bear (Matthew 16:24-28, 1 Peter 2:1-12).

We are to try to keep God’s Law, not man-made traditions.  We will fail due to our sinful nature, but then we flee to Christ when we do. Then we return again to try to keep the Law.  Trying to keep the Law does not Justify, but it is what God wants us to do for the Law is His perfect will (Luke 21:34-38, 1 Corinthians 9)

Fasting is also a good practice to help discipline the body.  But they are to be done for discipline’s sake to allow us to focus on Christ more.  To subdue the flesh. Not to beat oneself up.  Fasting is denying what your body desires in order to serve your neighbor and God.  Fasting is not done to somehow please God by your work of fasting (Isaiah 58).

To reiterate a previous point, we are not required to have the same traditions everywhere.  True unity is found in doctrine and the Sacraments not in the traditions.  That does not mean traditions are bad, or that unity in practice is not something to be sought.  We cannot and should not bind consciences on this. We can argue for what makes better practice.  We should always have in mind the weaker Christian. Consistent traditions and practice are good for them. After all, if things are changing all the time how can a new Christian or weak Christian find stability. Good order is to be sought always. Thus we keep the old traditions and modify and add in new ones as needed.  They teach the faith in profound ways and have proven the test of time to be good for body and soul.

The Confutation disagrees with this article.  They point out that these ordinances are from the legitimate authority of the church to make rules and regulations that must be obeyed as from God.  The Apology already dealt with this in Article XV (VIII) on Church Ceremonies. Namely that human rites should not be attached to justification. Thus we will not cover it again.

1 By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless;
My soul, believe and doubt it not.
Why stagger at this word of promise?
Has Scripture ever falsehood taught?
No! Then this word must true remain;
By grace you too will life obtain.

2 By grace! None dare lay claim to merit;
Our works and conduct have no worth.
God in His love sent our Redeemer,
Christ Jesus, to this sinful earth;
His death did for our sins atone,
And we are saved by grace alone.

3 By grace God’s Son, our only Savior,
Came down to earth to bear our sin.
Was it because of your own merit
That Jesus died your soul to win?
No, it was grace, and grace alone,
That brought Him from His heav’nly throne.

4 By grace! This ground of faith is certain;
So long as God is true, it stands.
What saints have penned by inspiration,
What in His Word our God commands,
Our faith in what our God has done
Depends on grace–grace through His Son.

5 By grace to timid hearts that tremble,
In tribulation’s furnace tried,
By grace, in spite of fear and trouble,
The Father’s heart is open wide.
Where could I help and strength secure
If grace were not my anchor sure?

6 By grace! On this I’ll rest when dying;
In Jesus’ promise I rejoice;
For though I know my heart’s condition,
I also know my Savior’s voice.
My heart is glad, all grief has flown
Since I am saved by grace alone.

(LSB 566)

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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