A Laymen’s Commentary on the Epitome of the Formula of Concord: The Summary Content, Rule, and Norm

Comprehensive Summary, Rule and Norm According to which all dogmas should be judged, and the erroneous teachings [controversies]that have occurred should be decided and explained in a Christian way.

1] 1. We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with [all] teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament alone, as it is written Ps. 119:105: Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. And St. Paul: Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you, let him be accursed, Gal. 1:8.

2] Other writings, however, of ancient or modern teachers, whatever name they bear, must not be regarded as equal to the Holy Scriptures, but all of them together be subjected to them, and should not be received otherwise or further than as witnesses, [which are to show] in what manner after the time of the apostles, and at what places, this [pure] doctrine of the prophets and apostles was preserved.

This primacy of Scripture as the only rule and norm is, in fact, a claim the Scripture itself makes (2 Timothy 3:10-17). The 66 books of the Old and New Testament are to be considered inspired by the Holy Spirit.  They are inerrant, infallible, sufficient, clear, and efficacious.  This is shown by how the Psalms talk about the Word of God (Psalm 119). Since God’s Word is a light for our path, and God would not give us something deficient or deceptive, we must hold it alone as our sole rule and norm.

There is no new revelation (Galatians 1).  Rather we have the completeness and clarity of Scripture.  As such no matter how vaunted the names of the church fathers they must all be subject to the Word.  It matters not who they are, Holy Scripture is the final arbiter of pure doctrine.

Even in the early church when prophecy and vision was still in use the prophets and tongues were subject to Scripture.  This was in order to discern their meaning and not allow any false spirits.  Any one can claim to be a prophet or have a vision or have a tongue from God but not all actually do.  All are to be tested, as the Bereans did with St. Paul, against the Word of God (Acts 17:10-15, 1 Corinthians 14:26-40).

The other writings of the church fathers are to be used, but as witnesses to the true Word of God.  They are there to help illuminate the text and show the depth of the meaning of Scripture.  Even then they are not to be held above Scripture.  Scripture is as the Solid Declaration says “the pure fountain of Israel”.  From nothing else does pure life giving doctrine flow.

3] 2. And because directly after the times of the apostles, and even while they were still living, false teachers and heretics arose, and symbols, i. e., brief, succinct [categorical] confessions, were composed against them in the early Church, which were regarded as the unanimous, universal Christian faith and confession of the orthodox and true Church, namely, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, we pledge ourselves to them, and hereby reject all heresies and dogmas which, contrary to them, have been introduced into the Church of God.

Even during the time of the apostolic age (as with the prophets), false teachers arose. To fight against these heresies the Church saw fit to produce symbols to show the people what pure doctrine was.  The symbols were concise confessions of faith that were adopted with unanimous consent by the Church as being in line with the orthodox, catholic faith.  These symbols are the Three Ecumenical Creeds (Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian).  All heresies condemned in them are likewise condemned by the authors of the Formula of Concord (Titus 3:1-11).

4] 3. As to the schisms in matters of faith, however, which have occurred in our time, we regard as the unanimous consensus and declaration of our Christian faith and confession, especially against the Papacy and its false worship, idolatry, superstition, and against other sects, as the symbol of our time, the First, Unaltered Augsburg Confession, delivered to the Emperor Charles V at Augsburg in the year 1530, in the great Diet, together with its Apology, and the Articles composed at Smalcald in the year 1537, and subscribed at that time by the chief theologians.

5] And because such matters concern also the laity and the salvation of their souls, we also confess the Small and Large Catechisms of Dr. Luther, as they are included in Luther’s works, as the Bible of the laity, wherein everything is comprised which is treated at greater length in Holy Scripture, and is necessary for a Christian man to know for his salvation.

6] To this direction, as above announced, all doctrines are to be conformed, and what is, contrary thereto is to be rejected and condemned, as opposed to the unanimous declaration of our faith.

7] In this way the distinction between the Holy Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament and all other writings is preserved, and the Holy Scriptures alone remain the only judge, rule, and standard, according to which, as the only test-stone, all dogmas shall and must be discerned and judged, as to whether they are good or evil, right or wrong.

8] But the other symbols and writings cited are not judges, as are the Holy Scriptures, but only a testimony and declaration of the faith, as to how at any time the Holy Scriptures have been understood and explained in the articles in controversy in the Church of God by those then living, and how the opposite dogma was rejected and condemned [by what arguments the dogmas conflicting with the Holy Scripture were rejected and condemned].

Additional controversies and heresies have arisen even since the early church.  New symbols were required to show clearly what pure doctrine is.  Thus the reformers also hold to the unaltered Augsburg Confession, it’s Apology, the Smalcald Articles, and the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. This are symbols that grew up in the controversies of the Reformation, and have become symbols held dearly by the church to this day.

In addition the reformers here show special concern with the laity, knowing that they too need proper instruction.  Thus the Small and Large Catechisms are also adopted as symbols.  These Catechisms are for the laity and show them all they should know from Scripture in a simplified and clear form.

These documents are subscribed to in a “quia” way not a “quatenus” manner.  A quia subscription means that we subscribe to the Book of Concord because it is faithful to the Scriptures.  A quatenus subscription means that we subscribe to the Book of Concord insofar as it is faithful to the Scriptures.  The difference is crucial.  The reformers are saying that the Book of Concord has no mistakes in it with regards to doctrine and is in line with Scripture in its entirety.  Those with a quatenus subscription are hedging their bets assuming that the Book of Concord could be in error on some point of doctrine.  This position is a slippery slope to liberalism and other confessions of faith.  To be a Lutheran is to have a quia subscription.

In the LC-MS we require the communicant laity to have a quia subscription to the Small Catechism and our pastors are required to have a quia subscription to the Book of Concord.  Namely as a member of the communicant laity one should have studied the Small Catechism and Scripture to the point where you can confess with a clear conscience and full understanding that the Small Catechism is true to Scripture.  As a member of the Office of the Ministry you are held to a higher standard and should have studied the Book of Concord and the Scriptures to a point where you have a full understanding and clear conscience with regards to the confession of the Book of Concord.

Thus the Holy Scriptures are the norming norm, and the Book of Concord is the normed norm.  We judge all doctrine by the Book of Concord and Scripture with Scripture being the final arbiter but knowing that the Book of Concord is pure confession of Scripture and should not be contradicted. Everything contrary to these confessions is to be rejected (1 Thessalonians 5:12-28).

To further drive home the point let’s read the last section of the Solid Declaration Rule and Norm:

10] But [this is not to be understood as if] hereby other good, useful, pure books, expositions of the Holy Scriptures, refutations of errors, explanations of doctrinal articles, are not rejected; for as far as they are consistent with the above-mentioned type of doctrine, these are regarded as useful expositions and explanations, and can be used with advantage. But what has thus far been said concerning the summary of our Christian doctrine is intended to mean only this, that we should have a unanimously accepted, definite, common form of doctrine, which all our evangelical churches together and in common confess, from and according to which, because it has been derived from God’s Word, all other writings should be judged and adjusted as to how far they are to be approved and accepted.

11] For that we embodied the above-mentioned writing, namely, the Augsburg Confession, Apology, Smalcald Articles, Luther’s Large and Small Catechisms, in the oft-mentioned Sum of our Christian doctrine, was done for the reason that these have always and everywhere been regarded as the common, unanimously accepted meaning of our churches, and, moreover, have been subscribed at that time by the chief and most enlightened theologians, and have held sway in all evangelical churches and schools. 12] So also, as before mentioned, they were all written and sent forth before the divisions among the theologians of the Augsburg Confession arose; therefore, since they are held to be impartial, and neither can nor should be rejected by either part of those who have entered into controversy, and no one who without guile is an adherent of the Augsburg Confession will complain of these writings, but will cheerfully accept and tolerate them as witnesses [of the truth], no one can think ill of [blame] us that we derive from them an explanation and decision of the articles in controversy, 13] and that, as we lay down God’s Word, the eternal truth, as the foundation, so we introduce and quote also these writings as a witness of the truth and as the unanimously received correct understanding of our predecessors who have steadfastly held to the pure doctrine.

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration Rule and Norm 10-13

So far the Solid Declaration. As an additional note, while the Epitome does not include a discussion of the thesis and antithesis form of refutation it does use it.  Thus in order to explain this form of writing we will include the description of this form from the Solid Declaration:

Articles in Controversy with Respect to the Antithesis, or Opposite Doctrine.

14] Moreover, since for the preservation of pure doctrine and for thorough, permanent, godly unity in the Church it is necessary, not only that the pure, wholesome doctrine be rightly presented, but also that the opponents who teach otherwise be reproved, 1 Tim. 3 (2 Tim. 3:16); Titus 1:9, — for faithful shepherds, as Luther says, should do both, namely, feed or nourish the lambs and resist the wolves, so that the sheep may flee from strange voices, John 10:12, and may separate the precious from the vile, Jer. 15:19, —

15] Therefore we have thoroughly and clearly declared ourselves to one another, also regarding these matters, as follows: that a distinction should and must by all means be observed between unnecessary and useless wrangling, on the one hand, whereby the Church ought not to be disturbed, since it destroys more than it builds up, and necessary controversy, on the other hand, as, when such a controversy occurs as involves the articles of faith or the chief heads of the Christian doctrine, where for the defense of the truth the false opposite doctrine must be reproved.

16] Now, although the aforesaid writings afford the Christian reader, who delights in and has a love for the divine truth, clear and correct information concerning each and every controverted article of our Christian religion, as to what he should regard and receive as right and true according to God’s Word of the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures, and what he should reject, shun, and avoid as false and wrong; yet, in order that the truth may be preserved the more distinctly and clearly, and be distinguished from all errors, and that nothing be hidden and concealed under ordinary terms [rather general words and phrases], we have clearly and expressly declared ourselves to one another concerning the chief and most important articles taken one by one, which at the present time have come into controversy, so that there might be a public, definite testimony, not only for those now living, but also for our posterity, what is and should remain the unanimous understanding and judgment [decision] of our churches in reference to the articles in controversy, namely:

17] 1. First, that we reject and condemn all heresies and errors which were rejected and condemned in the primitive, ancient, orthodox Church, upon the true, firm ground of the holy divine Scriptures.

18] 2. Secondly, we reject and condemn all sects and heresies which are rejected in the writings, just mentioned, of the comprehensive summary of the Confession of our churches.

19] 3. Thirdly, since within thirty years some divisions arose among some theologians of the Augsburg Confession on account of the Interim and otherwise, it has been our purpose to state and declare plainly [categorically], purely, and clearly our faith and confession concerning each and every one of these in thesis and antithesis, i. e., the true doctrine and its opposite, in order that the foundation of divine truth might be manifest in all articles, and that all unlawful, doubtful, suspicious, and condemned doctrines, wherever and in whatever books they may be found, and whoever may have written them, or even now may be disposed to defend them, might be exposed [distinctly repudiated], 20] so that every one may be faithfully warned against the errors, which are spread here and there in the writings of some theologians, and no one be misled in this matter by the reputation [authority] of any man. From this declaration the Christian reader will inform himself in every emergency, and compare it with the writings enumerated above, and he will find out exactly that what was confessed in the beginning concerning each article in the comprehensive summary of our religion and faith, and what was afterward restated at various times, and is repeated by us in this document, is in no way contradictory, but the simple, immutable, permanent truth, and that we, therefore, do not change from one doctrine to another, as our adversaries falsely assert, but earnestly desire to be found loyal to the once-delivered Augsburg Confession and its unanimously accepted Christian sense, and through God’s grace to abide thereby firmly and constantly in opposition to all corruptions which have entered.

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration Rule and Norm 14-20

1 I know my faith is founded
On Jesus Christ, my God and Lord;
And this my faith confessing,
Unmoved I stand on His sure Word.
Our reason cannot fathom
The truth of God profound;
Who trusts in human wisdom
Relies on shifting ground.
God’s Word is all-sufficient,
It makes divinely sure;
And trusting in its wisdom,
My faith shall rest secure.

2 Increase my faith, dear Savior,
For Satan seeks by night and day
To rob me of this treasure
And take my hope of bliss away.
But, Lord, with You beside me,
I shall be undismayed;
And led by Your good Spirit,
I shall be unafraid.
Abide with me, O Savior,
A firmer faith bestow;
Then I shall bid defiance
To ev’ry evil foe.

3 In faith, Lord, let me serve You;
Though persecution, grief, and pain
Should seek to overwhelm me,
Let me a steadfast trust retain;
And then at my departure,
Lord, take me home to You,
Your riches to inherit
As all You said holds true.
In life and death, Lord, keep me
Until Your heav’n I gain,
Where I by Your great mercy
The end of faith attain.

(LSB 587)

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