“That Upon Which Our Happiness Rests” Thoughts on the Anniversary of the Publication of the Book of Concord
In concluding his discussion of the second article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Large Catechism, Martin Luther can hardly contain his joy and so declares:
The entire Gospel that we preach is based on this point, that we properly understand this article as that upon which our salvation and all our happiness rests. It is so rich and complete that we can never learn it fully. (LC II.ii.33; Concordia, pg. 402).
A while back a pastor said to me: “The Lutheran Church is the Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical Church. These realities—all three—only meet in her. That is why Lutheranism is worth defending and advancing—because it is the combination of these three essential characteristics.” He is absolutely correct.
My friend and colleague, Dr. Holger Sonntag, wrote something a couple years ago that I was very impressed with and I share it here as way to think about the Book of Concord, on this day of its anniversary:
“A point almost always overlooked when we talk about the Book of Concord is this: “Lutheran” confessions really aren’t (just) “Lutheran!” It is important to highlight this in our relativistic, subjectivistic culture where everybody seems to have their truth — and so, why shouldn’t (some in) the Lutheran church have their Lutheran confessions (so long as the Reformed get to have their confessions and the Catholics their Council of Trent — and non-denominational groups their bible)? But that understates the ecumenical claim of the “Lutheran” Confessions. The “Lutheran” confessions are not interested in formulating some particular truths (really then: “truths”); they’re interested in reasserting the catholic, universal, Christian truths of Scripture. In other words, on the one hand, it does make sense to call the Book of Concord the “Lutheran Confessions” to distinguish them from the, say, Anglican Confession or the Reformed Confessions. Yet that only touches on one aspect. Even though it historically emerged out of inner-Lutheran arguments after Luther’s death in 1546, the 1580 Book of Concord was not originally entitled: Lutheran Book of Concord (then the Catholics would have won: “Ha! See? You Lutherans only run after Luther’s private opinions — the “ecumenical councils” are us!”). It is entitled: Christian Book of Concord (as can be seen on the beautiful title page of the German Book of Concord that graces this blog post: the German word “Christliche” (Christian) is the biggest, most ornate word on that page — and that is so for a very good reason!). It gave an account of correct Christian, catholic, universal teaching of the Church precisely because it was drawn from the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures. Building on the three “ecumenical creeds,” the Book of Concord now formulates the standard of what is considered Christian in the Christian church. That is, at least, the assertion of the churches bearing Luther’s name. This claim is indeed controversial, as everybody can easily understand. But since we are now in the time of the church militant — which truth / interpretation of Scripture is really uncontroversial? In fact, if there’s any reason for there being a distinct Lutheran church, then it can only be found in the catholicity of this church’s doctrine, once confessed in the Christian Book of Concord of 1580. So we’re really saying: even though it sounds very parochial and particular, this one confession defines what is Christian to this day because it correctly expounds Scripture, God’s word. Many, no doubt, will call this “sectarianism” (as opposed to the “ecumenical” denominationalism where every “denomination” is just a different, but equally valid denomination, kind of like different dollar bills in your wallet). But in the church of the Crucified, truth is not found in generalizations and abstractions many can agree on “by their own reason or strength”. It is found in offensive details, in agreeing on what God’s word actually means.”
Well said indeed! And precisely because the Lutheran Confessions are, in fact, the defining definition of the true and pure Christian confession of doctrinal harmony in the Gospel, I cherish them. Mind you, please. I am not saying there are no other Christian confessions, there are many, some much better than others, but what I am saying is that there are none better than contained in this book, this Book of Concord.
Three aspects of the Lutheran Confessions in particular are a source of great joy for me when I read and study the Book of Concord.
They are pastoral. The constant drum beat throughout them is the goal of comforting and caring for souls. The Lutheran Confessions are not theological speculations or abstractions. The times in which they were written called for pastoral care on a scale that could only be compared to a national emergency. Souls bruised and bullied by legalisms and demands placed on them outside of and beyond the Sacred Scriptures were healed by the healing and life-giving Gospel. Persons who were not hearing the comforting promises of the Holy Gospel, the free and full forgiveness of all salvation through Christ, received the love of God as they heard of the Savior who loved them and died and rose for them. The Lutheran Confessions speak to us today because they speak of the most important issues any of us ever face in our life. Who am I? What is life’s meaning? How do I know God? Am I loved? How can I be sure? What am I do to with my life?
They are practical. They go right to the heart of the key issues and, even in spite of the length of some articles in them, never wander off on side paths. It is a book on a mission and that is to deliver the Gospel: purely, cleanly, correctly and practically, again, for the care of souls. They are not journal articles indulging in scholarly pursuits, or the pet interests of their authors in the pursuit of credibility and respect in the academic community. The Confessions are practical resources for people’s faith and life, as they live and especially, as they die. Why? Because the golden thread running throughout them is the chief and most important teaching of the Christian faith: justification by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone, the teaching drawn from Scripture, alone: the Gospel.
They are personal. The Book of Concord was written by people who had deep and long first-hand experience with the various theological ills they are decrying and had first-hand knowledge of just how powerfully comforting and consoling the Gospel is. Therefore, for example, when you read about monasticism in this book, always behind these discussions stands the man who spent well over a decade of his life in this lifestyle, tortured and tormented no end by the lack of Gospel: Martin Luther. The book could almost be said to be a spiritual autobiography of all those who contributed to it. They are not dispassionate scientific essays. They are not mystical and obscure texts. They are personal statements of faith expressed on behalf of the Church, and for the Church, in order to gather more and more into the Church.
For these reasons, with my fathers in the faith, I too say, invoking the mercy of God:
In the sight of God and the entire Church of Christ, we want to testify to those now living and those who will come after us. This declaration presented here about all the controverted articles mentioned and explained above—and no other—is our faith, doctrine, and confession. By God’s grace, with intrepid hearts, we are willing to appear before the judgment seat of Christ with this Confession and give an account of it. We will not speak or write anything contrary to this Confession, either publicly or privately. By the strength of God’s grace we intend to abide by it. (Concordia, p. 618).
Therefore, on this day, with Luther, we say about this blessed Gospel, the chief article
of the Christian religion, that it is the thing upon which all our
happiness rests. It is precisely the Gospel that the Book of Concord is all about. That is why we should, and must, celebrate the anniversary of its publication.
Thanks be to God, who in His mercy has provided for us this precious Book of Concord. May we remain firm and steadfast in its confession.