The Lutheran Confessions and the Book of Concord: Is there a difference? And some thoughts on the unhelpful distinction between “historical confessional” and “authorized collections”
I’ve appreciated the feedback and observations I’ve received from folks in response to my two blog posts on the topic When Is a Book of Concord Not a Book of Concord? An interesting question has been raised in connection with this issue. The Constitution of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod not specifically mention the Book of Concord, or at least it no longer does. Instead, the Constitution stipulates the individual documents in the Lutheran Confessions by name. I’ve been told that this might suggest to some that in fact the Book of Concord is not necessarily the definitive collection of the Lutheran Confessions. I would respectfully disagree with that point of view. What is the Book of Concord? It is the normative and authoritative collection of the Lutheran Confessions. It was produced in two editions: a German edition in 1580 and a Latin edition in 1584.
The study of the textual history of our various Lutheran Confessions is helpful, but it does not, and must not be permitted to, change the fact that the texts of the Lutheran Confessions as contained in the two editio princeps of the Book of Concord, the German edition of 1580 and the Latin edition of 1584, are the authoritative forms of the Lutheran Confessions for our Synod, not predecessor forms, and certainly not necessarily the forms of those texts as they are rolled out in each new edition of the Bekenntnisschriften.
Someone might say, "But it is the German BOC of 1580 that alone is the definitive text." I would say to that simply, "Yes, the German BOC has pride of place, a "first among equals" position, but clearly the history demonstrates that the reality was simply that the German 1580 and the Latin of 1584 were always received by the church as the two editions of the BOC. The Latin was intended to be released nearly simultaneously with the German, but after two efforts to produce an adequate Latin text, it was several years before a Latin text was arrived in 1584, but there is no doubt it is also an authoritative, definitive edition of the BOC in Latin. It has always been, universally, regarded by all who subscribe the German BOC of 1580 as simply being the definitive Latin edition. This is how Bente refers to it and regards it. Similarly, Walther and Pieper. It simply is not an issue. Therefore, ex post facto efforts to "make something" of this and attempt thereby to justify reaching back into the prior historical forms of the various Lutheran Confessions and put those forms before our Church as texts of the Book of Concord, is not appropriate. The Latin edition was universally used by the schools and universities to prepare pastors and theologians for centuries. We have our BOC in both German and Latin, the two editio princeps, as was always clearly understood." That our Confessions were intended to be received in the Church in both German and Latin is witnessed to by the fact that John Frederick the Magnanimous insisted on his favorite of all of Luther’s writings, the Smalcald Articles, be published in a German-Latin Octavo edition in 1542 [Bente, 58, 60]. To use this point however to defend reaching back before either the German or Latin editions of the BOC to bring in forms of texts not in either edition of the Book of Concord is unjustified and an illegitimate procedure. Producing editions of the Lutheran Confessions in predecessor forms, or forms not contained in the Book of Concord is one thing, presenting them as editions of the Book of Concord is quite another.
So then, what are we to make of the fact that The LCMS Constitution does not mention the Book of Concord by name? I can find no evidence to indicate that The LCMS ever regarded a list of the individual Lutheran Confessions to be somehow distinct from where those documents were authoritatively located, in the Book of Concord. Let me site some evidence to support my contention.
In fact The LCMS Constitution did mention the Book of Concord. The very first section of the Synod’s Constitution said:
I. Reasons for forming a synodical organization: 6. The unified spread of the kingdom of God and to make possible the promotion of special church projects. (Seminary, agenda, hymnal, Book of Concord, schoolbooks, Bible distribution, mission projects within and outside the Church.) You can see the actual first page of our Constitution where this is stated at the Concordia Historical Institute web site. The same point was picked up and repeated in 1854 when the Constitution was amended to divide the Synod into districts. Again, “enterprises of the Synod” listed among the reasons for its formation which included: “seminary, agenda, hymnal, Book of Concord, schoolbooks, Bible distribution, missionary endeavors, within and without the church, etc.). (Moving Frontiers, p 149).
When did this drop out of the LCMS Constitution? At some point near the turn of the 20th century, and for no reason other than apparently an effort to conserve some space and remove what was no longer deemed necessary verbiage as to specifying objectives, which were incorporated elsewhere. In other words, long before anyone arrived on the scene suggesting that the Lutheran Confessions are one thing, and the Book of Concord is another, or that the 1580/1584 editions are not the definitive editions of our Lutheran Confessions.
That the Book of Concord was in the mind of our founders when they speak of the Lutheran Confessions is without doubt also indicated by the fact that they used the word “Concordia” to name their first institution of theological education, Concordia Seminary, and used it to name nearly every institution they could in the coming years: Concordia College, Concordia Publishing House, etc. Concordia is, of course, a reference to the Book of Concord, “Concordia” being the book’s title.
Robert Kolb writes in his book Confessing the Faith:
By the end of the 16th century formal authority for interpretation of Scripture came to rest, for the Lutherans, in The Book of Concord. The Augsburg Confession remained the primary document within this collection of confessional documents. The disadvantage of using such documents as an authority is that the documents did not and could not address every question which might arise in the later life of the church. The advantage of such an organ for the exercise of secondary authority in the church is that the Book of Concord provides a model and an orientation for the teaching of the churches which accept it as norma normata (normed norm, in the language of the 17th-century Lutheran teachers). The Book of Concord draws all its adherents into the active public confession of their faith in Jesus Christ. It orients their confession and teaching around Jesus Christ and the message of forgiveness and life which He is and brings.(Robert Kolb, Confessing the Faith: Reformers Define the Church, 1530-1580, [St,. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1991], p. 40).
This is a nice summary of the important role that the Book of Concord, note, the Book of Concord, plays in the life of the Lutheran Church.
And finally two more pieces of evidence as to what is intended by a listing of the Lutheran Confessions. Bente states very simply in his Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions that, “Book of Concord, or Concordia, is the title of the Lutheran corpus doctrinae, i.e., of the symbols recognized and published under that name by the Lutheran Church. (Friedrich Bente, Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, Second Edition, 2005], p. 1).
Bengt Hegglund notes:
Through the formation of the Formula of Concord the ground was prepared for a uniform collection of confessional statements by the different Lutheran church bodies. This was accomplished in the year 1580 with the publication of the Book of Concord. This includes, in addition to the Formula of Concord, the following statements: the three ancient creeds, the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, the Smalcald Articles, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, and Luther’s two catechisms. The Book of Concord replaced the collections of doctrinal statements (corpora doctrinae) which had been used previously in the various regional churches (for example, the Corpus Philippicum of 1560, accepted in Saxony, Denmark, and elsewhere). As an anthology of Lutheran confessional statements, the significance of the Book of Concord gradually came to be recognized even outside the circle of German Lutheranism. In Sweden an edict promulgated in 1663 recommended that pastors study it. In Denmark and Norway, however, it was not officially recognized, since the authorities there did not wish to bind themselves to the Formula of Concord. (Bengt Hagglund, History of Theology [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999], p. 280).
Therefore, the fact that today the LCMS Constitution lists the Lutheran Confessions by name this is not intended to imply some sort of distinction between the Lutheran Confessions and the Book of Concord. The Missouri Synod has always understood that the authoritative edition of the Lutheran Confessions are to be found, in German, in the 1580 Dresden edition of the Book of Concord and, in Latin, in the 1584 Leipzig edition of the Book of Concord. And, of course, the Synod’s Articles of Incorporation, still mention by name the Book of Concord.
Therefore, is there any truly meaningful and significant difference between the Lutheran Confessions and the Book of Concord? No. The Book of Concord is where we find the authoritative and definitive collection of the Lutheran Confessions. Study of the textual history of the various Lutheran Confessions has its place and is useful, but it has its limits. It can not provide us with a “better” Book of Concord, nor should it make that attempt.
One more point to be made. Some say that using texts in forms not
contained in the BOC editions is a “historical confessional” approach
to the Lutheran Confessions, while an approach that locates the
authoritative texts of our Lutheran Confessions only in the Book of
Concord is an “authorized collection” approach. Who authorized this
collection? Since the signatories of the Book of Concord were political
rulers and entities, I’ve heard it said that the Book of Concord is
actually more of a German legal document than a churchly/theological document. If we take this approach to these issues to its logical conclusion, we should dismiss the
Nicene Creed as a “political document." Using phrases like this only
serves to muddy the water. It is neither helpful nor accurate to speak
in such a manner about these issues. The "authorized collection" is also the definitive, historical collection of our Confessions and it is called The Book of Concord.
Finally, let it again be noted that there is no issue of doctrine that arises in these questions of texts and textual criticism in regard to the Book of Concord. Be assured of that. However, there have been some who have, in their efforts to defend decisions to include texts of the Confessions not in either edition of the Book of Concord, have not made this point clear and have in fact left the impression that using texts as they are contained in the Latin or German BOC is somehow insufficient, erroneous, or "poor scholarship." This approach to the issue is most unhelpful indeed, for precisely in defending one’s decisions about such textual matters is the risk run of leaving people with the impression that the question of what the texts are in the Book of Concord is finally only something that can be determined by specialists laboring over various forms of the texts that predate their inclusion in the two authoritative editions of the Book of Concord. In regard to Biblical textual criticism, we do not in fact have any original autographs, that is, the original texts penned by the holy writers, but in the case of the Book of Concord, we do have the original editions of the Book of Concord. If only these points were made clear, and it would be clearly asserted that it is by no means a question of doctrine, and that using the texts of the German and Latin BOC is not really an issue, that would be one thing, but public assertions that fail to make these points only cause doubt and confusion where none need exist. Similarly advancing novel ways of describing the two schools of thoughts: "historical confessional" vs. "authorized collection" further adds uncertainty and a lack of clarity to the issue. This is what motivates my remarks on these issues. And I thank you for your kind indulgence while reading these various posts on these issues.