A Laymen’s Commentary on the Augsburg Confession: Church Authority

This is part 29 of 30 in the series A Layman's Commentary on the Augsburg Confession

Article XXVIII: Of Ecclesiastical Power.

1] There has been great controversy concerning the Power of Bishops, in which some have awkwardly confounded the power of the Church 2] and the power of the sword. And from this confusion very great wars and tumults have resulted, while the Pontiffs, emboldened by the power of the Keys, not only have instituted new services and burdened consciences with reservation of cases and ruthless excommunications, but have also undertaken to transfer the kingdoms of this world, 3] and to take the Empire from the Emperor. These wrongs have long since been rebuked in the Church 4] by learned and godly men. Therefore our teachers, for the comforting of men’s consciences, were constrained to show the difference between the power of the Church and the power of the sword, and taught that both of them, because of God’s commandment, are to be held in reverence and honor, as the chief blessings of God on earth.

At the time of the Reformation, bishops held both ecclesiastical office and public office.  Originally this was done for the sake of good order.  With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the church stepped in to maintain order.  Over time this developed into princes delegating responsibilities to the bishops who were more numerous and of good character.  This grew into abuse over the centuries, to the point where bishops claimed their public office was divinely instituted.

Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) was famous for his confrontation with the Hohenstaufen’s (the Holy Roman Emperors) on this subject.  His claim was that all authority extended from the church.  This claim of authority predicated on an allegorical eisegesis of Luke 22:38, where the two swords were read to mean both ecclesiastical and secular authority.  Beyond that, it was thought that the keys of the church were given only to Peter, which is clearly false as seen from the Scriptures referenced next in the Augsburg Confession (Matthew 16:13-20, John 20:21-22).

5] But this is their opinion, that the power of the Keys, or the power of the bishops, according to the Gospel, is a power or commandment of God, to preach the Gospel, to remit and retain sins, and to administer Sacraments. 6] For with this commandment Christ sends forth His Apostles, John 20:21 sqq.: As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you. Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained. 7] Mark 16:15: Go preach the Gospel to every creature.

8] This power is exercised only by teaching or preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments, according to their calling either to many or to individuals. For thereby are granted, not bodily, but eternal things, as eternal righteousness, the Holy Ghost, eternal life. 9] These things cannot come but by the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments, as Paul says, Rom. 1:16: The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth. 10] Therefore, since the power of the Church grants eternal things, and is exercised only by the ministry of the Word, it does not interfere with civil government; no more than the art of singing interferes with civil government. 11] For civil government deals with other things than does the Gospel. The civil rulers defend not minds, but bodies and bodily things against manifest injuries, and restrain men with the sword and bodily punishments in order to preserve civil justice and peace.

12] Therefore the power of the Church and the civil power must not be confounded. The power of the Church has its own commission to teach the Gospel and 13] to administer the Sacraments. Let it not break into the office of another; let it not transfer the kingdoms of this world; let it not abrogate the laws of civil rulers; let it not abolish lawful obedience; let it not interfere with judgments concerning civil ordinances or contracts; let it not prescribe laws to civil rulers concerning the form of the Commonwealth. 14] As Christ says, John 18:36: My kingdom is not of this world; 15] also Luke 12:14: Who made Me a judge or a divider over you? 16] Paul also says, Phil. 3:20: Our citizenship is in heaven; 17] 2 Cor. 10:4: The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the casting down of imaginations.

18] After this manner our teachers discriminate between the duties of both these powers, and command that both be honored and acknowledged as gifts and blessings of God.

19] If bishops have any power of the sword, that power they have, not as bishops, by the commission of the Gospel, but by human law having received it of kings and emperors for the civil administration of what is theirs. This, however, is another office than the ministry of the Gospel.

20] When, therefore, the question is concerning the jurisdiction of bishops, civil authority must be distinguished from 21] ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Again, according to the Gospel or, as they say, by divine right, there belongs to the bishops as bishops, that is, to those to whom has been committed the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments, no jurisdiction except to forgive sins, to judge doctrine, to reject doctrines contrary to the Gospel, and to exclude from the communion of the Church wicked men, whose wickedness is known, and this without human force, 22] simply by the Word. Herein the congregations of necessity and by divine right must obey them, according to Luke 10:16: He that heareth you heareth Me. 23] But when they teach or ordain anything against the Gospel, then the congregations have a commandment of God prohibiting obedience, Matt. 7:15: Beware of false prophets; 24] Gal. 1:8: Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel, let him be accursed; 25] 2 Cor. 13:8: We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. 26] Also: The power which the Lord hath given me to edification, and not to destruction. 27] So, also, the Canonical Laws command (II. Q. VII. Cap., Sacerdotes, and Cap. Oves). 28] And Augustine (Contra Petiliani Epistolam): Neither must we submit to Catholic bishops if they chance to err, or hold anything contrary to the Canonical Scriptures of God.

29] If they have any other power or jurisdiction, in hearing and judging certain cases, as of matrimony or of tithes, etc., they have it by human right, in which matters princes are bound, even against their will, when the ordinaries fail, to dispense justice to their subjects for the maintenance of peace.

This separation of Church and State into two realms is what is called Two Kingdoms theology which we discussed earlier in Article XVI.  Both kingdoms of Church and State are instituted by the Lord but both are ruled in different manners. It is clear that the office given to the Church is that of the Gospel (Romans 1:8-17).  The office of the Law has been given to the State (Romans 13:1-7).

Separation of Church and State, in a proper sense, is acknowledging that the power of the State does not come from the Church and the power of the Church does not come from the State.  While it is fine to allow a bishop to be both in the Church and State, the authority over to the State is not a divine right of the bishops.  Rather it is delegated to them by the civil government.

The Church is for the delivery of the Gospel.  The State is for enforcing the Law. We should not confuse the two.  The office of bishop properly is one of the Gospel.  After all Christ’s true Kingdom is not temporal but heavenly (John 18:33-40).

We are to listen to faithful bishops but we are not bound to follow unfaithful bishops.  We are to flee those who preach false doctrine. This is true for any pastor (Matthew 7:15-20, Galatians 1:6-10).

Any judging a bishop does of civil matters is purely by civil right.  No divine right is to be attached. Princes, therefore, can strip bishops of their civil office or override bishops on civil matters without sinning.

30] Moreover, it is disputed whether bishops or pastors have the right to introduce ceremonies in the Church, and to make laws concerning meats, holy-days and grades, that is, orders of ministers, etc. 31] They that give this right to the bishops refer to this testimony John 16:12-13: I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth. 32] They also refer to the example of the Apostles, who commanded to abstain from blood and from things strangled, Acts 15:29. 33] They refer to the Sabbath-day as having been changed into the Lord’s Day, contrary to the Decalog, as it seems. Neither is there any example whereof they make more than concerning the changing of the Sabbath-day. Great, say they, is the power of the Church, since it has dispensed with one of the Ten Commandments!

Another controversy is about whether or not bishops have the right to establish new ceremonies and traditions, especially with regards to the Gospel. The Roman Catholics would argue yes, bishops have the right to establish new requirements of Gospel.  According to them, these traditions must be obeyed or one is sinning.

34] But concerning this question it is taught on our part (as has been shown above) that bishops have no power to decree anything against the Gospel. The Canonical Laws teach the same thing (Dist. IX). 35] Now, it is against Scripture to establish or require the observance of any traditions, to the end that by such observance we may make satisfaction for sins, or merit grace and righteousness. 36] For the glory of Christ’s merit suffers injury when, by such observances, 37] we undertake to merit justification. But it is manifest that, by such belief, traditions have almost infinitely multiplied in the Church, the doctrine concerning faith and the righteousness of faith being meanwhile suppressed. For gradually more holy-days were made, fasts appointed, new ceremonies and services in honor of saints instituted, because the authors of such things thought that by these works they were meriting 38] grace. Thus in times past the Penitential Canons increased, whereof we still see some traces in the satisfactions.

39] Again, the authors of traditions do contrary to the command of God when they find matters of sin in foods, in days, and like things, and burden the Church with bondage of the law, as if there ought to be among Christians, in order to merit justification a service like the Levitical, the arrangement of which God had committed to the Apostles and bishops. 40] For thus some of them write; and the Pontiffs in some measure seem to be misled by the example 41] of the law of Moses. Hence are such burdens, as that they make it mortal sin, even without offense to others, to do manual labor on holy-days, a mortal sin to omit the Canonical Hours, that certain foods defile the conscience that fastings are works which appease God that sin in a reserved case cannot be forgiven but by the authority of him who reserved it; whereas the Canons themselves speak only of the reserving of the ecclesiastical penalty, and not of the reserving of the guilt.

42] Whence have the bishops the right to lay these traditions upon the Church for the ensnaring of consciences, when Peter, Acts 15:10, forbids to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, and Paul says, 2 Cor. 13:10, that the power given him was to edification not to destruction? Why, therefore, do they increase sins by these traditions?

43] But there are clear testimonies which prohibit the making of such traditions, as though they merited grace or were necessary to 44] salvation. Paul says, Col. 2:16-23: Let no man judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy-day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath-days. 45] 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. 46] Also in Titus 1:14 he openly forbids traditions: Not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men that turn from the truth.

47] And Christ, Matt. 15:14,13, says of those who require traditions: Let them alone; they be blind leaders of the blind; 48] and He rejects such services: Every plant which My heavenly Father hath not planted shall be plucked up.

49] If bishops have the right to burden churches with infinite traditions, and to ensnare consciences, why does Scripture so often prohibit to make, and to listen to, traditions? Why does it call them “doctrines of devils”? 1 Tim. 4:1. Did the Holy Ghost in vain forewarn of these things?

50] Since, therefore, ordinances instituted as things necessary, or with an opinion of meriting grace, are contrary to the Gospel, it follows that it is not lawful for any bishop 51] to institute or exact such services. For it is necessary that the doctrine of Christian liberty be preserved in the churches, namely, that the bondage of the Law is not necessary to justification, as it is written in the Epistle to the Galatians 5:1: Be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 52] It is necessary that the chief article of the Gospel be preserved, to wit, that we obtain grace freely by faith in Christ, and not for certain observances or acts of worship devised by men.

Bishops cannot establish any tradition against the Gospel, as we have pointed out numerous times before. This is the whole point of the previous articles in this section.  To do so is to set up new Levitical laws. Essentially they are Judaizers (Acts 15).

We are not to put a new yoke of man-made “divine” law on Christians.  The Law itself cannot be kept, why add to it?  We cannot and should not bind consciences on things that are subject to Christian freedom (Colossians 2:16-23, Galatians 5:1-15).

53] What, then, are we to think of the Sunday and like rites in the house of God? To this we answer that it is lawful for bishops or pastors to make ordinances that things be done orderly in the Church, not that thereby we should merit grace or make satisfaction for sins, or that consciences be bound to judge them necessary services, and to think that it is a sin to break them 54] without offense to others. So Paul ordains, 1 Cor. 11:5, that women should cover their heads in the congregation, 1 Cor. 14:30, that interpreters be heard in order in the church, etc.

55] It is proper that the churches should keep such ordinances for the sake of love and tranquillity, so far that one do not offend another, that all things be done in the churches in order, and without confusion, 1 Cor. 14:40; comp. Phil. 2:14 . 56] but so that consciences be not burdened to think that they are necessary to salvation, or to judge that they sin when they break them without offense to others; as no one will say that a woman sins who goes out in public with her head uncovered provided only that no offense be given.

57] Of this kind is the observance of the Lord’s Day, Easter, Pentecost, and like holy-days and 58] rites. For those who judge that by the authority of the Church the observance of the Lord’s Day instead of the Sabbath-day was ordained as a thing necessary, 59] do greatly err. Scripture has abrogated the Sabbath-day; for it teaches that, since the Gospel has been revealed, all the ceremonies of Moses can be omitted. And 60] yet, because it was necessary to appoint a certain day, that the people might know when they ought to come together, it appears that the Church designated the Lord’s Day for this purpose; and this day seems to have been chosen all the more for this additional reason, that men might have an example of Christian liberty, and might know that the keeping neither of the Sabbath nor of any other day is necessary.

61] There are monstrous disputations concerning the changing of the law, the ceremonies of the new law, the changing of the Sabbath-day, which all have sprung from the false belief that there must needs be in the Church a service like to the Levitical, and that Christ had given commission to the Apostles and bishops to devise new ceremonies as necessary to 62] salvation. These errors crept into the Church when the righteousness of faith was not taught clearly enough. 63] Some dispute that the keeping of the Lord’s Day is not indeed of divine right, but in a manner so. They prescribe concerning holy-days, how far it is lawful to work. What else 64] are such disputations than snares of consciences? For although they endeavor to modify the traditions, yet the mitigation can never be perceived as long as the opinion remains that they are necessary, which must needs remain where the righteousness of faith and Christian liberty are not known.

65] The Apostles commanded Acts 15:20 to abstain from blood. Who does now observe it? And yet they that do it not sin not; for not even the Apostles themselves wanted to burden consciences with such bondage; but they forbade it for a time, to avoid offense. 66] For in this decree we must perpetually consider what the aim of the Gospel is.

67] Scarcely any Canons are kept with exactness, and from day to day many go out of use even among those who are the most zealous advocates of traditions. 68] Neither can due regard be paid to consciences unless this mitigation be observed, that we know that the Canons are kept without holding them to be necessary, and that no harm is done consciences, even though traditions go out of use.

Those ordinances we do find in the New Testament are for good order and in order not to offend the neighbor.  For example, women covering their heads in the church was a cultural issue in order not to cause offense and give a false confession of one’s marital status or sexual freedom (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).  We should not burden the consciences of women who do not cover their heads, as it is no sin and not offensive to anyone anymore that they do not do so.  In cultures though where it is offensive then it should be done in order to maintain order and not offend the neighbor. All should be done in good order.  Similarly, the order of interpreting tongues was set up for good order and is no longer needed since that sign has passed (1 Corinthians 14:1-33).

The Sabbath itself was abolished. However, in order to still fulfill the spirit of the 3rd Commandment, we still hold a day to meet together (Revelation 1:9-20).  We have the freedom to worship on whatever day we wish.  We use Sunday because of tradition and symbolism.

Abstaining from blood is also no longer done.  It was dictated at the First Council of Jerusalem in order to not offend the Jews unduly.  However, now it is no longer kept.

No one even keeps all the canon laws exactly.  We should keep the laws we make as men in the Church as best we can but not bind consciences on them.  They are not instituted by divine right and thus should not be treated as such.

69] But the bishops might easily retain the lawful obedience of the people if they would not insist upon the observance of such traditions as cannot be kept with a good conscience. 70] Now they command celibacy; they admit none unless they swear that they will not teach 71] the pure doctrine of the Gospel. The churches do not ask that the bishops should restore concord at the expense of their honor; which, nevertheless, 72] it would be proper for good pastors to do. They ask only that they would release unjust burdens which are new and have been received contrary to the custom of the Church Catholic. 73] It may be that in the beginning there were plausible reasons for some of these ordinances; and yet they are not adapted to later times. 74] It is also evident that some were adopted through erroneous conceptions. Therefore it would be befitting the clemency of the Pontiffs to mitigate them now, because such a modification does not shake the unity of the Church. For many human traditions have been changed in process of time, 75] as the Canons themselves show. But if it be impossible to obtain a mitigation of such observances as cannot be kept without sin, we are bound to follow the apostolic rule, Acts 5:29, which commands us to obey God rather than men.

76] Peter, 1 Pet. 5:3, forbids bishops to be lords, and to rule over the churches. 77] It is not our design now to wrest the government from the bishops, but this one thing is asked, namely, that they allow the Gospel to be purely taught, and that they relax some few observances which 78] cannot be kept without sin. But if they make no concession, it is for them to see how they shall give account to God for furnishing, by their obstinacy, a cause for schism.

If bishops actually did their jobs of oversight and proclaiming the Gospel correctly then there would be no need for this article.  All the Reformers are asking of the bishops is to not enforce traditions that are contrary to the Gospel. To not burden people’s consciences with needless practices.  Traditions change over time, so it is okay to change them now as well. Especially in view of their violation of the Gospel.

The Reformers have no problem with the oversight of bishops. Rather they have a problem with the bishops claiming divine rights that they do not have.  Namely those in the civil realm and those with regards to traditions.

The Confutation disagrees with this article saying that bishops have the ability to establish new practices as from God Himself.  The Apology rehashes the same arguments as this article so we will not read it.  However, the Apology itself closes out this way.

22] They present, as an objection, the public offenses and commotions which have arisen under pretext of our doctrine. To 23] these we briefly reply. If all the scandals be brought together, still the one article concerning the remission of sins, that for Christ’s sake through faith we freely obtain the remission of sins, 24] brings so much good as to hide all evils. And this, in the beginning, gained for Luther not only our favor, but also that of many who are now contending against us. “For former favor ceases, and mortals are forgetful,” says Pindar. Nevertheless, we neither desire to desert truth that is necessary to the Church, 25] nor can we assent to the adversaries in condemning it. For we ought to obey God rather than men. Those who in the beginning condemned manifest truth, and are now persecuting it with the greatest cruelty, will give an account for the schism that has been occasioned. Then, too, are there no scandals 26] among the adversaries? How much evil is there in the sacrilegious profanation of the Mass applied to gain! How great disgrace in celibacy! But let us omit a comparison. 27] This is what we have replied to the Confutation for the time being. Now we leave it to the judgment of all the godly whether the adversaries are right in boasting that they have actually refuted our Confession from the Scriptures.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XXVIII (XIV) 22-27

It is clear from the Apology that in no way has the Confutation disproven the Augsburg Confession.  The Augsburg Confession to this day stands unrefuted.

1 One thing’s needful; Lord, this treasure
Teach me highly to regard.
All else, though it first give pleasure,
Is a yoke that presses hard!
Beneath it the heart is still fretting and striving,
No true, lasting happiness ever deriving.
This one thing is needful; all others are vain–
I count all but loss that I Christ may obtain!

2 How were Mary’s thoughts devoted
Her eternal joy to find
As intent each word she noted
At her Savior’s feet reclined!
How kindled her heart, how devout was its feeling
While hearing the lessons that Christ was revealing!
All earthly concerns she forgot for her Lord
And found her contentment in hearing His Word.

3 Wisdom’s highest, noblest treasure,
Jesus, is revealed in You.
Let me find in You my pleasure,
And my wayward will subdue,
Humility there and simplicity reigning.
In paths of true wisdom my steps ever training.
If I learn from Jesus this knowledge divine,
The blessing of heavenly wisdom is mine.

4 Nothing have I, Christ, to offer,
You alone, my highest good.
Nothing have I, Lord, to proffer
But Your crimson-colored blood.
Your death on the cross has death wholly defeated
And thereby my righteousness fully completed;
Salvation’s white raiments I there did obtain,
And in them in glory with You I shall reign.

5 Therefore You alone, my Savior,
Shall be all in all to me;
Search my heart and my behavior,
Root out all hypocrisy.
Through all my life’s pilgrimage, guard and uphold me,
In loving forgiveness, O Jesus, enfold me.
This one thing is needful; all others are vain–
I count all but loss that I Christ may obtain!

(LSB 536)

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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