Mythbusting: “Dead Orthodoxy”
What better source for instruction concerning the nature of the Church’s confession can we find than the New Testament? Here we at once make an extremely important observation, namely that the same words which correspond with our “confess” and the Latin confiteri, the words homologein and exhomologeisthai, have several distinct meanings which nevertheless are basically related: the confessing of sin (1 John 1:9, Matt. 3:6, James 5:16), the confessing of faith(Matt. 10:32, John 9:22; Rom. 10:9; 1 John 2:23; 4:2; Phil. 2:11, etc.; cf. 2 Cor. 9:13; Heb. 3:1; 4:14, etc.) and the praising of God(e. g., Matt. 11:25; Rom. 14:11).
In the Church all three types of “confessing” belong inseparably together, even as history shows. The “Te Deum laudamus, Te Dominum confitemur,”which Luther loved to count as one of the ecumenical confessions of the Church,
was sung by a church that was repenting for the sins of mankind amidst the ruins of the ancient world. The Confessiones of Augustine are praises of God, but also confessions of faith and confessions of the sin in his life. Because the Reformation began as a penitential movement and according to its innermost nature was such a movement in fact, a movement that concerned itself about true repentance and the justification of sinners, therefore, and only therefore, it was able to produce confessions of faith and to sing a new song of praise to God in its liturgies and hymns. Paul Gerhardtand the other great hymn writers of our church could sing the praise of God as no other generation. But it was not in spite, but rather because of the fact that they were orthodox men and contenders for orthodoxy.
It is no mere coincidence that the end of the seventeenth century, when men were no longer taking the doctrine of faith seriously, also witnessed the departure of the confessional from Lutheran churches and at the same time the silencing of its great hymns of praise and thanksgiving. When will men stop this idle talk about “dead orthodoxy,” a charge that is completely without historical foundation, resting only on a dogma of Pietism,—for Pietism has also had its dogmas, and some very obvious ones at that. This connection between confession of sins, confession of faith, and the praise of God could be demonstrated as occurring in other denominations as well, e.g., in the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, whose great theologians were also great liturgists, or in the Eastern Church where “orthodoxy” has always meant both the true doctrine and the true praise of God.
Nevertheless, it would be entirely wrong to proceed from this connection to the conclusion which is so often drawn today, namely that it is enough if the Church worships God with glorious hymns and liturgies, and that the Creed is only a part of the Liturgy. Many modern Protestants are perfectly willing to join in singing those old hymns of praise which glorify the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God or the divine mystery of the Trinity. But that does not yet mean that they accept these respective articles of faith as true. In addition to their liturgical function, therefore, these Creeds have another side, according to which they serve as formulations of doctrine. And this dare not be surrendered. In Heaven this confession will indeed be purely an act of praise (Phil. 2:11, also the great hymns of the Apocalypse). For in heaven there will be no more error, no more heresies. And Anti‑christ, who leads men into misbelief and unbelief, will finally be overcome.
But here on earth the praise of God with its implied confession of belief in Him is accompanied by a declaring of the content of this faith, of simple judgment of fact, of articles of faith which the believer holds to be true. “Born of the Virgin Mary,” “of one essence with the Father,”—those are statements that one cannot pray and cannot sing unless one believes them to be true, even as one should not sing, “Blest and Holy Trinity, Praise forever be to Thee!” if one no longer believes this doctrine. The fact that modern Protestants do this nevertheless is a symptom of the decline of the evangelical churches and explains the greater strength of Catholicism. There is no church on earth without a real confession that it takes seriously. The Liturgy itself is an outgrowth of such a confession, and the Pope was perfectly right when in his encyclical Mediator Dei he reminded the liturgical movement of the Roman Church that the familiar dictum “Lex supplicandi lex credendi” [the law of praying is the law of believing, i.e., what is prayed is believed] not only can but must be inverted. Just as it is certain that in the history of the Church a dogma is usually first prayed and then defined as an article of faith, just so certainly the liturgy is preceded by confession of faith in the original Church.
Sasse Letters to Lutheran Pastors II, Church and Confession, translated by M.C. Harrison