The Role and Authority of the Lutheran Confessional Writings:
Do Lutherans Really “Condemn the Anabaptists”?
DAVID G. TRUEMPER*
Abstract: Written for the opening session of a round of dialogue between the Mennonite Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, this essay explores the nature of the authority of the Lutheran confessional writings, and the meaning and possible binding nature of the condemnations of Anabaptists contained especially in the Augsburg Confession (1530). Arguing that it is the doctrinal content of the Confession that is binding for Lutherans today, and that historical judgments contained in the Confession are relative and fallible, the essay suggests the possibility that the condemnations of Anabaptists in the Augsburg Confession do not apply to Mennonites participating in these dialogues.
While it is true that Lutherans have given priority to dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, and that those conversations are foundational for any genuine undoing of the breaches of Christian unity that occurred in the sixteenth century, the prospect of dialogue between Lutherans and Mennonites is a welcome and important challenge. For it is also true that the breach Lutherans have suffered with-and to some extent inflicted upon-the Anabaptists and their heirs was in fact already a reality before the Reformers lived through the breakdown of conversations with the Roman Catholic Church in the middle of the sixteenth century. So these are important conversations. I write this essay with a deep awareness of the courage and evangelical commitment demonstrated by the Mennonite dialogue partners in making these conversations possible. The churches of the Augsburg Confession are driven to these conversations both out of commitments recorded at the deepest levels of our confessional writings, and out of a sense that we who were at the center of the western church’s sixteenth-century fractures bear central responsibility for seeking healing and reconciliation. We cannot know to what these conversations might lead, and we undertake them knowing that we Lutherans have not been nearly so energetic in trying to initiate these conversations as we have been in carrying on the now forty-six year old conversations with the Roman Catholic Church. Still, both are at the dialogue table. And that is good.
To be sure, we have seen very promising starts to ecumenical dialogue in Europe. From 1981-1984 representatives of the 2000 Mennonites in France met for dialogue with their counterparts representing some 300,000 Lutherans, and the results were encouraging, speaking of “confessing the same faith, in words and deeds, in the dead and risen Christ whose return we await.” And from 1989 to 1992 German Lutherans and Mennonites held bilateral conversations, culminating in a statement that foreshadowed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican’s PCPCU in October 1999: “With one mind we declare that, according to our insight into the life and teaching of the Mennonite congregations in the AMG, the condemnations of the CA no longer apply to today’s partner in conversation. And, to the still-remaining differences between our churches and societies we attribute no church-dividing significance.”
This paper will (1) offer a responsible and integrative reading of the Lutheran confessional writings of the sixteenth century (to be sure, with a focus on their condemnations of the “Anabaptists”); (2) name the problem that arises from such condemnations; and (3) suggest some foundational principles (“golden rules”) for ecumenical conversation that have been gleaned from the past half-century of bilateral conversations or that have been constructed as glosses on what has transpired that may serve my proposals for the conversations ahead-should God grant that these efforts bear the fruit of continuation into God’s own future.
HOW IS THE BOOK OF CONCORD AUTHORITY FOR LUTHERANS’
The Constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America gives the binding language about the nature of the authority of the confessional writings for this church:
2.03. This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.
2.04. This church accepts the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds as true declarations of the faith of this church.
2.05. This church accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.
2.06. This church accepts the other confessional writings in the Book of Concord, namely, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord, as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church.
2.07. This church confesses the Gospel, recorded in the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the ecumenical creeds and Lutheran confessional writings, as the power of God to create and sustain the Church for God’s mission in the world.
That is the constitutional, legal language. But any fundamental challenge would surely require a major work of interpretation and ruling from some ecclesiastical Supreme Court to say what those paragraphs mean in detail. These are venerable words, differing little from similar language in the constitutions of the various predecessor churches.
One might also look at the language of the rites for ordination/consecration of pastors and bishops. In these rites the ecumenical creeds are said to be “true declarations” of the faith of the ELCA; the Augsburg Confession is a “true witness to the Gospel”; and the other confessional writings are “further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church.” Still, this presentation must try to say to Mennonites what all that might mean-so that, in a subsequent section of this paper, we can take up the exceedingly important question of the contemporary significance, if any, of the condemnations of “Anabaptist” teaching in those various confessional writings.
What the constitution and the ordination rites of the ELCA provide can be simply summarized:
1. It is the biblical text that has foundational authority for this church: the inscripturated Word of God is “the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.”
2. This church’s public confession of faith is the three ecumenical creeds.
3. This church’s particular confession, the Augsburg Confession, is affirmed as “a true witness to the Gospel,” so much so that we unconditionally declare fellowship and unity with any other church that makes a similar judgment about the Augsburg Confession.
4. The other confessional writings are affirmed to hold a subsidiary role: “as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church.”
The hierarchy of authority is clear: Scripture, then ecumenical creeds, Augsburg Confession, other confessional writings. Items 3 and 4 will receive the major attention in what follows, since neither the sacred scriptures nor the ecumenical creeds, of course, address the issue of the relationship between Mennonites and Lutherans.
The simple truth is that there is no single and authoritative interpretation of what the language of the confessions means. For the confessional writings betray their sixteenth-century origins on almost every page. And it would be a silly posture, in 2002, to suppose that those sixteenth-century origins are not an important, even relativizing, factor. But to what extent do the acids of relativization eat away at the confessional substance? Our guide is a seminal essay by the veteran ecumenical dialogue participant, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, in a 1958 article, “Suggested Principles for a Hermeneutics of the Lutheran Symbols.” As arguably the foremost interpreter of the Lutheran confessional writings in North America in the middle third of the last century, Piepkorn yielded to no one in his dedication to uphold those confessional writings-while at the same time demonstrating a passionate commitment to responsible ecumenical dialogue with other Christians, especially with the Roman Catholic Church, where he served as an official observer from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod during about the first decade of the highly productive North American dialogues between Lutherans and Roman Catholics.
A few hermeneutical principles from Piepkorn’s pioneering essay require mention and elaboration here. These principles do not enjoy constitutional status in our church; they are one scholar’s best description of what the above-summarized commitment to the symbols “really means” for contemporary North American Lutherans.
In the first place, Piepkorn argues, Lutherans are committed to their symbols, not absolutely nor literalistically, but rather to their “doctrinal content,” to the catholic and apostolic truth of the gospel to which they bear historically conditioned and therefore relatively binding witness. The confessional writings explicitly defer to the authority of the scriptural gospel, and they explicitly state that they are only historically conditioned witnesses to that scriptural truth.
Second, any serious commitment to the Lutheran confessional writings must recognize that they are “political as well as religious documents.” Accordingly, one will have to ask repeatedly about the extent to which a given assertion in the symbols is made for political or doctrinal purpose.
Significantly, Piepkorn concludes that Lutherans “are not bound to affirm any inerrancy of the Symbols in historical or scientific matters.” Minimally, this means that the historical judgment expressed in the symbolical writings-for example, that the reigning Pontiff in the Vatican is to be labeled “Antichrist,” or that, as the Augsburg Confession says on about half a dozen occasions, a teaching of “the Anabaptists” on this or that point of confession is to be condemned-are indeed “fallible” judgments. Such condemnations have to be tested as to their factual accuracy, to their germaneness to the “doctrinal content” of the confessional writings, and to their abiding relevance as subsequent generations seek to make faithful witness to the gospel.
Consider this: catholic and apostolic Christian truth is represented by what we might call “A” statements. Along comes an Arius-or a Mntzer- who makes plausible claims that are judged finally to abandon that truth; call these “B” statements. In order to preserve and keep available for the church in this or another age that catholic and apostolic truth, the church develops “C” statements. The problem with much of our mutual history is that we have insisted on the eternal validity and necessity of our respective “C” statements. The dialogue process of the last one-third century has made clear a consensus on “A” statements of the catholic and apostolic truth; clearing away the underbrush, we have mutually learned that the other’s “B” statements are no longer held dear. So we may safely abandon our insistence on the “C” statements-whose purpose was to preserve the essential elements of the “A” statements. What we learn from these dialogues is to suspend the “C” statement when the “B” statements are not in circulation, and to consent together on “A” statements. The trouble is that people often have turned their favorite “C” statements into idols and fetishes-instead of working at the task of understanding the faith and articulating the faith afresh for the contemporary church. Piepkorn comments, “If B is not asserted, we had better content ourselves with A instead of replacing it with C.”
This view of the authority of the Lutheran symbolical writings is fully informed by modern historical criticism. We ask first, “What did it mean to say that then'” before we ask, “What might it mean to say that now'”-assuming we need to say that now.
THE CONDEMNATIONS OF ANABAPTISTS IN THE LUTHERAN SYMBOLS
There are in fact relatively few condemnations of Anabaptists in the Augsburg Confession. Such condemnations appear explicitly in articles V, IX, XII, XVI, XVII; and implicitly in articles X and XXIV.
Apart from a handful of indirect comments in various confessional writings, we face the explicit statements in the Formula of Concord of 1577 about “Anabaptists” whose errors the authors feel compelled to address. We turn, then, to these statements of condemnation in order to read them in their historical and theological contexts and to assess their significance for our present conversations. The purpose here is first to name the condemnations (though not because it gives a Lutheran today any delight in naming these things), then to describe something of the historical/theological circumstances behind those condemnations, and finally to suggest, gently and hopefully, that this reading of the condemnations may open a path of amicable and fruitful bilateral dialogue. What might follow that path of dialogue is left to the Spirit of God, whose breathings and blowings keep surprising and strengthening the Church. All of this must be done under the hopeful sign of Piepkorn’s reminder: “Since the Symbols always speak to the specific situations that precipitated them, we need to remember that we cannot absolutize what are inescapably contingent formulations.”
To begin, then, here are the troublesome passages.
Concerning the Ministry of the Gospel: “Condemned are the Anabaptists and others who teach that the Holy Spirit comes to us through our own preparations, thoughts, and works without the external word of the Gospel.” (CA V)
Concerning Holy Baptism: ” It is taught among us that Baptism is necessary and that grace is offered through it. Children, too, should be baptized, for in Baptism they are committed to God and become acceptable to him. On this account the Anabaptists who teach that infant Baptism is not right are rejected.” (CA IX)
Concerning the Lord’s Supper: ” It is taught among us that the true body and blood of Christ are really present in the Supper of our Lord under the form of bread and wine and are there distributed and received. The contrary doctrine is therefore rejected.” (CA X) [Though Anabaptists are not explicitly named here, scholars are pretty well unanimously convinced that this article of the CA veils a deep concern about Anabaptist views of the Lord’s Supper.]
Concerning Repentance: “It is taught among us that those who sin after Baptism receive forgiveness of sin whenever they come to repentance, and absolution should not be denied them by the church. Properly speaking, true repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror, on account of sin, and yet at the same time to believe the Gospel and absolution (namely, that sin has been forgiven and grace has been obtained through Christ), and this faith will comfort the heart and again set it at rest. Amendment of life and the forsaking of sin would then follow, for these must be the fruits of repentance, as John says, “Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Matt. 3:8). Rejected here are those who teach that persons who have once become godly cannot fall again. Condemned on the other hand are the Novatians who denied absolution to such as had sinned after Baptism. Rejected also are those who teach that forgiveness of sin is not obtained through faith but through the satisfactions made by man.” (CA XII)
Concerning Civil Government: “It is taught among us that all government in the world and all established rule and laws were instituted and ordained by God for the sake of good order, and that Christians may without sin occupy civil offices or serve as princes and judges, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws, punish evildoers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, buy and sell, take required oaths, possess property, be married, etc. Condemned here are the Anabaptists who teach that none of the things indicated above is Christian.” (CA XVI)
Concerning Christ’s Return to Judgment: ” It is also taught among us that our Lord Jesus Christ will return on the last day for judgment and will raise up all the dead, to give eternal life and everlasting joy to believers and the elect but to condemn ungodly men and the devil to hell and eternal punishment. Rejected, therefore, are the Anabaptists who teach that the devil and condemned men will not suffer eternal pain and torment. (CA XVII)
In addition, one might suspect that the defense of the reforms concerning the Mass (CA XXIV) were drafted with a concern about Anabaptist anti-sacramental convictions. And finally, article XII of the Formula of Concord of 1577 provides a summary of seventeen Anabaptist teachings that “cannot be suffered or tolerated in the churches or in the body politic or in domestic society”:
1. That our righteousness before God does not depend alone on the sole obedience and merit of Christ but in renewal and in our own piety, in which we walk before God. But this piety rests for the greater part on their own peculiar precepts and self-chosen spirituality as on a kind of new monkery.
2. That unbaptized children are not sinners before God but righteous and innocent, and hence in their innocence they will be saved without Baptism, which they do not need. Thus they deny and reject the entire teaching of original sin and all that pertains thereto.
3. That children should not be baptized until they have achieved the use of reason and are able to make their own confession of faith.
4. That the children of Christians, because they are born of Christian and believing parents, are holy and children of God even without and prior to Baptism. Therefore they do not esteem infant Baptism very highly and do not advocate it, contrary to the express words of the promise which extends only to those who keep the covenant and do not despise it (Gen. 17:4-8, 19-21).
5. That that is no truly Christian assembly or congregation in the midst of which sinners are still found.
6. That one may not hear or attend on a sermon in those temples in which the papistic Mass had formerly been read.
7. That one is to have nothing to do with those ministers of the church who preach the Gospel according to the Augsburg Confession and censure the errors of the Anabaptists; neither may one serve them or work for them at all, but one is to flee and avoid them as people who pervert the Word of God.
8. That in the New Testament era government service is not a godly estate.
9. That no Christian can hold an office in the government with an inviolate conscience.
10. That no Christian may with an inviolate conscience use an office of the government against wicked persons as occasion may arise, nor may a subject call upon the government for help.
11. That a Christian cannot with a good conscience swear an oath before a court or pay oath-bound feudal homage to his prince or liege lord.
12. That the government cannot with an inviolate conscience impose the death penalty on evil-doers.
13. That no Christian can with a good conscience hold or possess private property but is obliged to give his property to the community.
14. That no Christian can with a good conscience be an innkeeper, a merchant, or a cutler.
15. That difference in faith is sufficient ground for married people to divorce each other, to go their separate ways, and to enter into a new marriage with another person of the same faith.
16. That Christ did not assume his flesh and blood from the virgin Mary but brought it along from heaven.
17. That Christ is not truly and essentially God but only possesses more and greater gifts and glory than other people.
They hold other similar articles. But they are divided into many parties among themselves, with one party holding more and another party holding fewer errors. The entire sect, however, can be characterized as basically nothing else than a new kind of monkery.
There are a few other oblique and indirect references to Anabaptist teaching in the Lutheran symbols, but these will give us more than enough with which to deal. To deal with them, more summarily than individually, we now turn.
INTERLUDE: GENERAL PRINCIPLES OF ECUMENICAL DIALOGUE
As we begin to address the meaning, the accuracy, and the relevance of these condemnations, we propose that seven “golden rules” of ecumenical conversation can be gleaned from the experience of twentieth-century dialogues. These are to some extent patently obvious in the process we are focusing on in these days, and to some extent I have extrapolated them from conversations with participants whose views have been formative. In part, these principles are evident in the thirty-seven years of Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue; in part, they are proposed as at least implicit and/or promising. And they may be foundational for the initiative we are engaged in.
1. One may disagree with or condemn another’s position only after one has demonstrated the ability to state the other’s position in such a way that the other agrees with that formulation.
2. Since even very simple formulae have great power to create meaning, one must handle theological and doctrinal formulae with great care: Is this formula an essential expression of the truth as we have come to understand it? Or is it (merely) a witness to how people at one time and place chose to articulate essential truth?
3. The truth sought in ecumenical conversation resides beneath the surface of venerable and traditional formulae and not necessarily in the formulae per se.
4. Language and terminology are cultural artifacts and therefore susceptible to change; thus, merely asserting an ancient or traditional formula does not necessarily assert the same thing as the formula originally intended and conveyed.
5. Given the increasingly evident pluralism of the “global village” we now inhabit, spokespersons for the faith will do well to observe Luther’s advice, made in another connection, “Es gehrt Bescheidenheit dazu [Modesty required here].”
6. Since God’s communication with human beings in various cultural settings and cultural circumstances must be held to be in a fundamental sense “effective,” one assumes that there are diverse appropriations of even central truths of religious conviction and of Christian faith; accordingly, the goal of ecumenical conversation is mutual understanding and what the Joint Declaration calls “differentiated consensus,” not uniformity of formula or of emphasis.
7. Ecumenical conversation is a profoundly churchly action, undertaken not with the goal of defending the fortress of doctrine, but with the awareness that the gospel defends and protects the church, against whose mission not even the gates of hell will prevail.
ISSUES IN THE HISTORICAL/CULTURAL/POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT
The Augsburg Confession was the confession of estates of the Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation, not of a group of theologians or diocesan church leaders. Accordingly, the statements of that Confession need first to be processed through the sieve of political reality in 1530. Once the emperor Charles V determined to move against the reformatory princes and cities of the empire, nothing less than life and property were at stake. For if it could be demonstrated that, in allowing reforms in the churches in their lands, dukes and princes and counts had “departed from the catholic faith,” they could be stripped of their royal titles, deprived of their lands and properties, and executed as heretics and traitors. So when John Eck published his 404 Articles in the spring of 1530, in which he lifted quotations from the writings of Luther, Melanchthon, Hubmaier and Denck and accused the reforming princes of having departed from the catholic faith on the basis of those citations, the confessors made two moves: (1) to add a confession of the faith to their defense of reforms and (2) to distance themselves whenever possible from the more radical reform parties. Here we recall that, according to imperial law, “the simple act of rebaptizing or the actual refusal of infant baptism remained sufficient evidence for theological and juridical condemnation”-a situation that can be traced all the way back to the Code of Justinian.
A second factor was that the sixteenth-century reform princes regarded the political/revolutionary tendencies of the Anabaptists as an emerging danger. To be sure, they evidently did not discriminate carefully between the apocalyptic and revolutionary appeals of Thomas Mntzer and the Peasants’ Uprising and the pacifistic vision of Balthasar Hubmaier. Nor did they have any charity to welcome cooperation and support from the Anabaptists, who were dismissed as “not only in conflict with the government but in basic opposition to the whole created order.” And Luther had been concerned that the Anabaptists’ non-involvement in the civil order was tantamount to a claim to have become a world power “above emperors and kings”-which was patently revolutionary, in sixteenth-century terms.
Finally, like most of their contemporaries, the reformers rarely if ever questioned the medieval symbiosis between church and society. “Not one of them was genuinely open toward the notion of [religious] pluralism in a particular region.” While Luther, for example, strongly opposed the notion of permitting conflicting religious notions in a given town or region, he also strongly opposed physical punishment of those who held Anabaptist convictions. In 1528 he wrote, “I think it is not right, and I am genuinely sorry that such people are so gruesomely murdered, burned, and cruelly assassinated. One ought to let everyone believe what one will. If one’s faith is wrong, that one will suffer enough punishment in the eternal fire. Why should such people also be tortured in this life, when they have erred only in faith'”
EXPLICITLY THEOLOGICAL ISSUES
The Lutheran princes and their theological advisers disagreed on a number of theological issues with the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. The issues were apocalyptic, sacramental, ethical and canon-legal, but the sacramental issues were fundamental.
1. The Lutheran princes and their advisers found the apocalyptic thought of the Anabaptists dangerous, since it seemed open to two kinds of disorder: either one would be likely to take up arms and pitchforks as in the Peasants’ Uprising; or one’s refusal to participate in the public order (as magistrates or soldiers, etc.) was dismissive of responsible Christian discipleship (though the Anabaptists would patently have interpreted their non-involvement in quite different terms).
2. So convinced were the Confessors of the objectivity of the grace of the sacraments that they regarded any insistence on believers’ baptism as a vote of no confidence in the gracious action of God.
3. The Anabaptist teaching on perfection, or on the perfectibility of the Christian believer, was seen as a triumphalist rejection of pervading sinfulness and dependence on God’s grace; in the Lutheran view, such perfectionist notions seemed strangely like the monastic ideal; thus the Anabaptists seemed to advocate a “new monkery.”
4. The public ministry of the church was seen by the Lutherans to be based on the church’s mediation of the call of the Spirit, and self-anointed preachers were seen as both suspicious and disruptive. Maurer comments, “Clearly, personal possession of the Spirit is not what constitutes a call; the office is not personal but is based on the Spirit and on Christ. The gift of the Spirit belongs to Christendom as a whole, and only through the church’s call does the office-bearer share in that common possession.”
5. The Anabaptists seemed to Luther and his associates to be a return to the time and the issues of the Donatists: “When the sacrament receives its meaning and power from God’s word of institution, it does not depend on the piety of those who participate”; this may well be the key to Luther’s suspicions.
6. The “ethicization of faith” which Mennonite theologian James Reimer finds decisive for Anabaptists seemed dramatically different from the Lutheran reformers’ pervading pessimism about human nature, and the Anabaptists’ belief “in the possibility of a genuine life of discipleship in which the rule of sin could be progressively overcome” seemed at least overweening, if not downright triumphalistic, to the Lutheran reformers.
7. The condemnations in many places rest on patently inadequate knowledge of what the Anabaptists actually taught. In addition, the CA did not make any distinction among the various strands and groups; Melanchthon, for example, seems to have lumped the Anabaptists together with the Zwickau prophets and/or Karlstadt and Mntzer.
8. The goal of the CA was not to describe the various Anabaptist groups and tendencies but simply to name and condemn “false teachings,” through a kind of catalog of erroneous doctrines. Nevertheless, no distinction was made between alleged error and alleged perpetrators, with the result that one cannot eliminate the possibility that the rejections of the CA contributed to the persecution of Anabaptists. This distinction is, however, made explicit in the preface to the Formula of Concord of 1577, along with an equally explicit criticism of the persecutions, murders and executions of Anabaptists in the decades after the Augsburg Confession:
With reference to the condemnations, censures, and rejections of false and adulterated doctrine, especially in the article concerning the Lord’s Supper, these have to be set forth expressly and distinctly in this explanation and thorough settlement of the controverted articles in order that everybody may know that he must guard himself against them. There are also many other reasons why condemnations cannot by any means be avoided. However, it is not our purpose and intention to mean thereby those persons who err ingenuously and who do not blaspheme the truth of the divine Word, and far less do we mean entire churches inside or outside the Holy Empire of the German Nation. On the contrary, we mean specifically to condemn only false and seductive doctrines and their stiff-necked proponents and blasphemers. These we do not by any means intend to tolerate in our lands, churches, and schools inasmuch as such teachings are contrary to the expressed Word of God and cannot coexist with it. Besides, pious people should be warned against them. But we have no doubt at all that one can find many pious, innocent people even in those churches which have up to now admittedly not come to agreement with us. These people go their way in the simplicity of their hearts, do not understand the issues, and take no pleasure in blasphemies against the Holy Supper as it is celebrated in our churches according to Christ’s institution and as we concordantly teach about it on the basis of the words of his testament. It is furthermore to be hoped that when they are rightly instructed in this doctrine, they will, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, turn to the infallible truth of the divine Word and unite with us and our churches and schools. Consequently the responsibility devolves upon the theologians and ministers duly to remind even those who err ingenuously and ignorantly of the danger to their souls and to warn them against it, lest one blind person let himself be misled by another. For this reason we desire to testify before the face of almighty God and the whole of Christendom that it is in no way our disposition and purpose to give occasion by this Christian agreement for any molestation and persecution of poor, oppressed Christians. For just as Christian charity causes us to have special sympathy with them, so we entertain a corresponding loathing for and a cordial disapproval of the raging of their persecutors. We want absolutely no share of the responsibility for this bloodshed. Payment for it will without doubt be required of the persecutors on the great day of the Lord before the solemn and severe throne of God’s judgment, and there they will have to give a hard accounting.
The preceding pages have recorded the condemnations which the Lutheran confessional writings level against those called “the Anabaptists” in the historical, political and theological context of the sixteenth century, and with a sensitivity to some of the hermeneutical principles that have evolved in the latter half of the twentieth century. In that light, it remains an open question whether those condemnations apply to today’s Mennonites with whom we begin hope-filled conversations. At the very least, we have considered a plausible reading of our confessional writings that might make it possible for these conversations to proceed profitably. In Arthur Carl Piepkorn’s words:
Mutual understanding takes time, and it takes contact. You can subscribe to another denomination’s journals, you can study its doctrinal standards, you can peruse its manuals of worship, and you can read its theologians, but you will still misunderstand its positions. There is no substitute for personal face-to-face contact, for dogged questioning of one another, and for sensitive and open-minded listening.
And he concludes:
It is the urgency that we need to remember, not the difficulty. We must undertake it. What is involved, humanly speaking, is nothing less than the credibility of the gospel of the grace of God in Christ that both [Mennonites] and Lutherans proclaim. None of us can persuade himself that Christ wills his followers to be divided from one another by mutual acrimony and anathemas.
It is a fruit of God’s grace that we are talking together. May that grace, and that fruit, increase.
[*]David G. Truemper is Professor and Chair of Theology at Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, IN, where he also serves as Director of the Institute of Liturgical Studies and Executive Director of the Council on the Study of Religion, Inc.
1. This paper was prepared for the opening round of conversations between the Mennonite Church in the USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America held at Goshen College in the early spring of 2002.
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. Quoted in Peter Godzik, “Material ber die Tuferbewegung: zum Dialog VELKD/Mennoniten 1989 bis 1992,” Texte aus der VELKD 54/1993 (Hannover: Lutherisches Kirchenamt, 1993), 18 (author’s translation).
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. A survey of the constitutions of Lutheran churches and church bodies in North America suggests that the single most significant difference in the language of subscription is whether the constitution in question speaks of a hierarchy of symbolical authority, or whether it speaks of the entire contents of the Book of Concord as authoritative in the same way and without differentiation.
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. Concordia Theological Monthly 39 (Jan.1958), 1-24. This essay, originally written for internal faculty conversations at Concordia Seminary, St Louis at the opening of the 1957-58 academic year, has remained a responsible proposal for the interpretation of the meaning of commitment to the Lutheran confessional writings, both in the LC-MS and in the ELCA (via the heritage of its predecessor churches). Piepkorn also served as one of the translator/editors of the 1959 English edition of the Book of Concord, together with Theodore Tappert, Jaroslav Pelikan and Robert Fischer (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg/Fortress Press, 1959). This edition of the Lutheran symbols served English-speaking Lutherans through the subsequent forty years.
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. Piepkorn claims as his concern “the discovery of the doctrinal content of the Symbols, strictly understood as the reformulation and reproduction of the doctrinal content of the Sacred Scriptures on the issues in question.”-Concordia Theological Monthly 39 (Jan.1958), 5.
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. Ibid., 19. A few years earlier Piepkorn had asserted, “Since the Symbols always speak to the specific situations that precipitated them, we need to remember that we cannot absolutize what are inescapably contingent formulations.”-The Seminarian 45 (June 1954), 39. One of the great lessons one learns from the more than 35 years of dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in North America is that ancient confessions and condemnations need to be understood in the context of the earlier times, and that, once that is accomplished, one may find that different language and different referents are required if one is to take those statements seriously today.
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. Here I build on three pieces of scholarship: Wilhelm Maurer, Historical Commentary on the Augsburg Confession, trans. H. George Anderson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986); Hans-Werner Gensichen, We Condemn: How Luther and 16th-Century Lutheranism Condemned False Doctrine, trans. Herbert J. A. Bouman (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967); and Material ber die Tuferbewegung zum Dialog VELKD/Mennoniten 1989 bis 1992, Texte aus der VELKD 54/1993 (Hannover: Lutherisches Kirchenamt, 1993).
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. “Keiner von ihnen war wirklich offen gegenber der Idee eines Pluralismus in einem vorgegebenen Gebiet. Sie frchteten die Verwirrungen, zu denen unterschiedliche Predigten und Lehren in einem bestimmten Gebiet fhren knnten. Deshalb fhrte die Verurteilung falscher Lehre, ohne da die Reformatoren sich wirklich widersetzt htten, zu gewaltttiger Repression gegen jene, die die verurteilte Lehre verkndeten.”-Marc Lienhard and Pierre Widmer, “Bericht des Dialogs zwischen Lutheranern und Mennoniten in Frankreich (1981-1984),” in Cornelia Nussberger, ed, Wachsende Kirchengemeinschaft: Gesprche und Vereinbarungen zwischen evangelischen Kirchen in Europa (Bern: Evangelische Arbeitstelle Oekumene Schweiz, 1992), 188.
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. “Es ist mir nicht recht und wahrlich leid, da man solche elenden Leute so jmmerlich ermorde, verbrenne und greulich umbringe. Man soll einen jeglichen lassen glauben, was er will. Glaubt er unrecht, so hat er genug Strafen an dem ewigen Feuer. Warum will man sie auch noch zietlich martern, sofern sie allein im Glauben irren'”-WA 26:145-46, as modernized and quoted in Godzik, Material, 7.
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. Cf. A. James Reimer, “Mennonite Theological Self-Understanding, the Crisis of Modern Anthropocentricity, and the Challenge of the Third Millennium,” in Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, eds. Calvin Wall Redekop and Samuel J. Steiner (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988), 19
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. Piepkorn, “Urgency of Dialog,” 10; the bracketed substitution, of course, was for Piepkorn’s dialogue partner at that time, “Roman Catholics.”
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
The Role and Authority of Lutheran Confessional Writings