A new week and that means it’s time for #HistoryMonday. We’re looking back almost 500 years today to a significant event and its accompanying document it produced. For those of you doing the math, hopefully you’ll realize it’s not the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution because their dates were only two centuries ago. It’s also not the Magna Carta or the Mayflower Compact, either. You might be thinking Martin Luther’s 95 Theses outlining his problems with the Medieval Catholic Church, and that’s a reasonable guess and you’re in the ballpark, but for ReformNerds, they know that happened on Halloween in 1517.
The event and its document presented on this day in 1530 and was titled both Augsburger Bekenntnis and Confessio Augustana for their respective audience. [Yes, mom I’m showing off and using German & Latin]. We refer to this document to as the Augsburg Confession. That may still not mean much to laymen either. Lutherans and other theologically trained readers know the confession as the basic tenets of the Lutheran Church.
So, you might ask yourself, why had Luther and company not written down their creed in the almost fifteen years since his attempts at reforming the church? Good question, the simple answer is surprisingly politics. Luther’s first few years were spent trying to find a way forward as a good Catholic. Upon Pope Leo’s release of Exsurge Domine in 1520 that Luther released that would no longer be possible. Luther and much of those in the Holy Roman Empire that would be under threat of arrest and execution for their new faith for the next decade. The impetus for the Augsburg Confession was politically motivated by the Holy Roman Emperor and the Spanish King Carlos V. Yes, often European kings also were Holy Roman Emperors, thanks to papal appointment to the Holy Roman Empire if they were good Christian Kings in their ruling country. Thus, why we have a separation of Church & State here in America. Anyways, Carlos V had urged Luther and those in the Germanic region of the Holy Roman Empire to draft articles of religion to be presented to the Imperial Diet for review in order to maintain a catholic church facing advances from Turkish invaders.
Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and Justus Jonas had drafted earlier religious articles a year earlier, and these served as the rough draft to what would be the Augsburg Confession. These three were joined by Johannes Bugenhagen in March to begin drafting the Confession, several other leaders and theologians from the Germanic region of the empire would continue the work in Augsburg in May, minus Luther due to his less-than-friendly with the church.
For reference, here is the confession in its entirety as part of the Book of Concord, the official book of doctrine for Lutheran churches: http://bookofconcord.org/augsburgconfession.php#article1. Coincidentally, the first edition of the Book of Concord was compiled on this date in 1580 as recognition of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Augsburg Confession.
The Augsburg Confession was presented to the Imperial Diet being read in both Latin and German, and the chancellor of the region of Saxony who had helped compile the confession made sure to read the German language edition of the confession loudly enough for the public to hear outside. This was done to make sure the public could hear and approve what was being read, against Emperor Carlos V’s objections.
So, for us today these are important doctrinal standards for those of us who identify as Protestants, and especially Lutherans. The Augsburg Confession contains 21 affirmative confessions of faith for Lutheran believers, some that contrast directly against Roman Catholicism; the confession also includes 7 outright rejections of Catholic practice of Luther’s Day.
The confession also produced a counter by Catholic theologians that could be used as official doctrinal standards for those who would remain as Catholics even to this day. Although, Vatican II tweaked some of those standards to be more amenable with their Protestant family.
The Augsburg Confession would also prove instructive for the Anglican Church around the same time and eventually for the official doctrinal standards for the Church of England in 1563 known as the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.
More personally, the Augsburg Confession and the Thirty-nine Articles are the basis of the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church. Thankfully, there are only 25 articles for the Methodist Church. The former EUB church had 16 articles. Both lists of doctrinal standards for the UMC are contained in the Book of Discipline ¶ 103.
Most importantly, the Augsburg Confession is important today for Protestants in that we all acknowledge that Salvation or Justification is by faith through grace. Essentially, God initiates justification and we as mortal humans choose to accept it. This also means that good deeds done by believers are fruits of salvation not means of salvation. Also, of note, Protestants reject the Catholic view of transubstantiation in Communion, and that the Eucharist must include both the cup and the bread for the congregation, not just the bread. The confession additionally acknowledges that for Protestants it is important to rightly understand confession is important for believers but is not meant as a means of extortion by those selling indulgences and should be private between believers and not public as was the Catholic practice of the day.
Hopefully this gives you some idea about the Augsburg Confession. There were obviously more involved than Luther and the usual suspects of the early Reformed church, but I omitted the names of the contributors and their positions and where the confession was worked on in favor of conciseness in writing. Much of the historical regions and the rulers have been changed completely as the country of Germany has become an autonomous country some 200 years ago. I would recommend looking up the Augsburg Confession at the link I referenced earlier and Googling the Thirty-nine Articles as well as the Historical Doctrinal Standards for the UMC as well. There is some overlap, but there are subtle variations worth appreciating and knowing. I’d also consider looking at the ancient creeds we know as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. It’s amazing how from the early church and a simple confession of Jesus as the risen Lord was more clarified from the ancient creeds to the Augsburg Confession and even to today.
Can you believe the Augsburg Confession was written so long ago and could still be relevant today?