“Series editor’s note: We continue in the yearlong study of Reformation and Martin Luther studies themes, grateful that this month two church historians share their perspectives on the continuing relevance and unifying force of the Lutheran Confessions. —Michael Cooper-White
Martin Luther’s protest against the medieval church resulted in memorable slogans: “Faith alone!” “Saint and Sinner!” “Law and Gospel!” But the Lutheran Reformation succeeded and reached us in our time not because we won the slogan contest but because of a remarkable set of “confessions”—statements of faith—that continue to unite Lutherans and show us how to adapt Lutheran principles to new times and places.
From the beginning, Lutheran reformers did more than criticize and tear down the old—they built a new framework for thinking about and living the Christian life. Luther and his allies challenged Christians to search and ponder Scripture with fresh eyes, and to worship and live far differently than preceding generations.
Intra-Lutheran controversies erupted especially after Luther’s death in 1546, and it fell to a new generation of reformers to chart the future course of the Lutheran Reformation in a manner faithful to its foundational biblical and theological insights. The labors of this generation led to the creation of the Book of Concord, first published in 1580. This extraordinary collection of key documents, including the Augsburg Confession and Luther’s catechisms, helped establish a Lutheran tradition of theological teaching.
Like the ancient Christian controversies over the nature of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the intra-Lutheran controversies of the latter 16th century were intense and divisive because they involved fundamental questions about Christian salvation and life. Lutheran reformers grounded salvation (aka justification) in God’s gift of faith in Christ, rather than in human efforts, and they argued that the life of faith was lived out most truly in the world, in the daily life of work and family, rather than in a monastery or on a pilgrimage. It took decades to even begin to work out what these radical claims entailed for Christians.
What is more, the compilers of the Book of Concord didn’t see their work as the end of the process. Instead, they sought to establish a lasting standard for evaluating doctrine and practice so future generations could continue to seek a deeper understanding and a more faithful application of the gospel.”
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