Lutheranism and Tradition

Reception of Doctrine as a Methodological Issue in Early Lutheranism

Piotr J. Malysz

(The following is an excerpt from a much larger article dealing with the question of doctrinal reception in Lutheranism.  The footnotes and some of the references have been omitted here.)

1. Practice and doctrine

In the writings of the sixteenth-century Lutherans, terms denoting reception appear in two sharply distinguished, though interrelated, senses: a passive and an active one.  In the first sense, they refer to the material dimension of reception, namely, that which is received.  In this sense, reception generally connotes restoration and is regarded in an overwhelmingly positive manner.  Although a further distinction is made here between the content of the faith and ecclesiastical practice, both are considered from the perspective of their point of origin: that which is eventually received is always evaluated in terms of what was first passed on.  Apostolic belief and practice, as expressed in the Scriptures, are uniformly privileged – but this is done in different ways.

Since much of the early Lutheran protest centred on practical abuses (indulgences, the trade in private masses, fasts, monastic vows, etc.), let us look at the reception of practice first.  For example, defending the Lutherans’ restoration of the Mass under both kinds to the laity, Melanchthon shows that that was what Paul received (accepisse) from Jesus and what he then passed on (Ap XXII.3).  Usually words such as command (mandatum) or testimony (testimonium) are employed to designate this material terminus a quo of reception.  The absence of explicit scriptural mandate does not necessarily disqualify a practice.  Apostolic practices did become more elaborate, while new practices were introduced, in the course of the church’s history.  Melanchthon is at pains to emphasise that the Lutherans “cherish the useful and ancient ordinances, especially when they contain a discipline by which it is profitable to educate and teach common folk and ignorant” (Ap VII/VIII.33).

It is at this point that doctrine is brought into the equation.  The Lutheran protest against practical abuses quickly escalated into full-fledged doctrinal controversy.  Practice, though distinct from doctrine, is never isolated from doctrine – practices can either promote the gospel or obscure it.  Therefore, what disqualifies a non-scriptural practice (e.g., masses for the dead) is when its attendant beliefs (purgatory) are, in the words of Luther, “against the chief article that Christ alone (and not human works) is to help souls.”  All this means that, while humans may, and indeed will need to, institute rites and practices (provided they do not obscure the gospel), no human may establish articles of faith, not even “on the basis of the holy Fathers’ works or words” if they lack scriptural support (Smalcald Articles II.II.12-13).  The content of the faith must remain invariant, the same at any point of its transmission as at the terminus a quo.

By the time of the Formula of Concord, this understanding of doctrine will become enshrined in the elevation of the scriptures to the status of “the only true guiding principle, according to which all teachers and teaching [and, by extension, practices] are to be judged and evaluated.”  Interestingly, other than this brief remark in the Formula’s preface, none of the Lutheran confessions devotes a separate article to Holy Scripture.  This will change within a generation.  Theologians, such as Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) in his monumental Loci communes theologici, will feel compelled to develop a complex doctrine of the perfection of Holy Writ, which, as “the Word of God … reduced to writing in accordance with his will” (Gerhard 1:502), must be both clear and exhaustive in all matters pertaining to salvation.  On the basis of Scripture’s perfection, Gerhard can then argue, on the one hand, for the necessary presence of vowel pointing in the original Hebrew text, and, on the other, against any “unwritten traditions,” by which he understands doctrines without scriptural mandate.

2. The process of transmission

Besides beliefs and practices, the Lutherans employed the term reception also to designate the transmission process.  In contrast to the material sense, the term’s emotive value in this second sense is highly ambiguous.  On the one hand, it was through the much-vilified Church of Rome that the Lutherans “received [haben wir freilich alles vom Bapst] … the true holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar, the true keys to the forgiveness of sins, the true office of the ministry, the true catechism in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the articles of the creed,” as Luther admits in his treatise Concerning Rebaptism (1528), “indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found [under the Papacy] and has come to us from this source” (LW 40:231-32).  On the other hand, these realities, the Lutherans insisted, had become obscured through numerous additional practices and opinions which the papal church had illicitly made into laws and articles of faith.  For this reason, Luther can also maintain, in Against Hanswurst (1541), that both the Papacy and the Lutheran churches derive from the ancient church, in that they both share the same true articles of faith and apostolic practices.  With this material aspect of reception in mind, he then adds: “we have received [empfangen] everything from the church before you (not from you),” and accuses the Papacy of perverting this common heritage and thus becoming an “erring, apostate, whorelike church” (LW 41:207).

The ambivalence with which the Lutherans viewed the transmission process was further complicated by the frequent attacks of their Papist opponents, who claimed that the Lutheran doctrines were innovations without precedent in the church’s teaching.  Faced with this charge, the Lutherans sought to establish their credentials as the true church by taking a more positive approach to the witness of the church’s tradition.  In the Bondage of the Will (1525), Luther declared emphatically, “The authority of the Fathers is of no consequence … for Christ is a higher authority than the Fathers” (LW 33:58, translation altered).  A decade later, in On the Councils and the Church (1539), he presents a more nuanced argument.  First of all, he emphasises that the fathers were all students of Scripture, and that no single father was able to exhaust the richness of the Scriptures and give an account of the entirety of Christian doctrine contained therein (although Augustine did come close).  In support Luther cites Augustine’s statement from De Trinitate that his writings are not to be regarded in the same manner as the Scriptures.  Second, the fathers frequently contradict each other and cannot, therefore, be appealed to without first and foremost being subjected to scriptural scrutiny.  In this connection, Luther claims that he actually knows the fathers better than his papal opponents who are “woefully at variance … with the will of the councils and the fathers” (LW 41:14).  He does admit that both the parties cull from the fathers’ writings what is convenient to them but maintains that, whereas the papists do so unscripturally to enhance papal power, the Lutherans use the fathers as that which they intended to be, namely, witnesses to the gospel, and in the way they intended to be used, that is, in conjunction with Scripture.  This becomes the general principle underlying the Lutheran approach to the fathers.  In On the Councils Luther points to Cyprian as an example of both scriptural and counter-scriptural teaching. Similarly, Melanchthon, even though he regards Augustine as the best of the fathers, can criticise Augustine for holding that faith is internal renovation rather than apprehension of Christ.  These criticisms appear not only in private correspondence (WA Br 6:99-100, cited together with Luther’s postscript) but also in Melanchthon’s Preface to the 1545 edition of Augustine’s De spiritu et littera (CR 5:803-10).

In addition, as early as the first edition of his Loci (1521), Melanchthon assumes, as a rule of thumb, that “the more recent an author is, the less Scriptural he is.”  He then explains, “Christian doctrine has degenerated into Scholastic trifling, and one does not know whether it is more godless than it is stupid” (19-20).  This loose observation was by mid-16th century developed, by Matthias Flacius (1520-75), into a historiographic methodology and eventually took shape in the form of the Magdeburg Centuries, a monumental but unfinished history of Christianity, documenting, century by century, the slow decline of the church before Luther’s protest.  This is not to imply that the Lutherans had nothing good to say about more recent theologians.  Luther’s attitude to Thomas Aquinas was by no means entirely negative (Janz 1989); and throughout his life he remained deeply appreciative of Bernard of Clairvaux, to whom he referred affectionately as “Pater Bernhardus” (LW 22:388; cf. Posset 1999: 59).

3. Reclaiming the church’s witness

But Luther and his colleagues came to believe that the fathers were useful not merely as an inventory of proof-texts, either illustrating the papacy’s apostasy, or indicating that the Lutheran doctrines were not new but rather the old doctrines brought back to light.  The fathers were also useful as examples of piety.  Towards this end, in 1544, the Lutherans published an edition of the medieval classic, Vitae patrum, but with parts extolling monastic life or contrary to the Lutheran emphasis on justification carefully expurgated.  For this edition Luther himself provided a preface (WA 54:109-111).

Last but not least, this appreciation – both externally necessitated and internally reclaimed – for the value of patristic witness was increased further by the rise of more radical church- and society- reforming programmes.  Of importance here are not only the theologies of the other magisterial reformers, but especially the programmes put forth by the Anabaptists and various anti-Trinitarian movements.  It was with those in mind that Luther observed: “heretics always like to boast of possessing Scripture” (LW 41:45).  And though his response to Karlstad’s and Zwingli’s views of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper was fundamentally scripture-based, he found it necessary also implicitly to invoke the church’s condemnation of Arius and Sabellius (Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525; LW 40:197), as well as Nestorius (Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528; LW 37:212; cf. 41:105).  The Augsburg Confession is more explicit.  Besides Pelagianism, of which the Lutherans routinely accused their Roman adversaries (II), and Manichaeism, with which they were in turn charged by their papal opponents, it denounces the heresies of “the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Mohammedans, and all others like them; also the Samosatenians, old and new” (I), Donatists (VIII), as well as the explicitly mentioned Anabaptists (V, IX).  In addition to rejecting all manners of heresy, Melanchthon invokes the magnus consensus of the church  and, referring to the substantial presence of Christ’s body and blood with the bread and the wine, goes on to state in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (X): “we defend the position received in the entire church [receptam in tota ecclesia].”

The Lutherans were, of course, not unaware of the danger.  Luther, for his part, warned against indiscriminate appeals to the church: “whenever the pope does not have the authority of the Scriptures on his side, he always uses this same argument against us: ‘The church’” (Lectures on Galatians, 1531; LW 26:15).  Although in the early days of his reformatorial career, Luther did several times appeal for vindication to a General Council, at the Leipzig debate with Johannes Eck (1519) he was cornered by his outspoken opponent into admitting that even councils could err.  He maintained this view for the rest of his life, which, as far as he was concerned, rendered the conciliar argument for a council’s canonical authority or hierarchical dignity (over against the pope’s) as ultimately of no consequence.  No council was authorised to make articles of faith anyway; those were established by Scripture alone.  Interesting in this light is, therefore, the mature Luther’s appeal to the fides catholica in his Disputatio de divinitate et humanitate Christi (1540/43; WA 39II:92-121).   In this polemic against Caspar von Schwenckfeld’s docetic monophysitism, Luther notes that Scripture does not always speak in the most fortuitous and helpful way.  As an example he cites the Johanine “The Word was made flesh.”  “In our judgment,” he comments, “it would have been better said, ‘The Word was incarnate,’ or ‘made fleshly.’”  He then goes on to insist that true understanding of Scripture lies not in the words, that is, in their sense necessitated by the grammar, but one must rather interpret the Scriptures “according to theology.”  Luther concludes the theses by asserting: “This is what it means to be a heretic: one who understands the Scriptures otherwise than the Holy Spirit demands.”  What he means by that is not some individual enlightenment but precisely the catholic faith which he invoked in the first thesis.

4. Developments

As can be seen, the process of doctrinal reception under the papacy was not a problem that the early Lutherans simply critiqued and then managed to overcome (as was their hope).  Rather, by the 1540s, their initial ambivalence had been transformed into a methodological problem internal to Lutheran theology – an insoluble tension between, on the one hand, the sufficiency and clarity of Holy Writ and, on the other, the continuing necessity of appealing to, and for this purpose also circumscribing, the catholic faith.  In his treatise, De Ecclesia et autoritate verbi Dei (1539/40; Romans 1992: 239-84), Melanchthon laid the groundwork for all subsequent attempts to overcome this tension.  He notes that the authority of the church extends only as far as teaching and admonishing.  And whenever it is invoked, “one must ask whether [the doctrine under consideration] was the consensus of the true church, agreeing with the Word of God.”  He spells out what he means by that when he puts forth the requirement that dogmas necessary for salvation must have been present in the teaching of the apostles.  Later doctrinal formulations must not only agree with this “divine voice” but also do so “simply and without sophistry.”  In closing Melanchthon reflects quite optimistically on the Lutherans’ own teaching: “it is beyond doubt that the kind of doctrine which we profess is truly the consensus of the catholic church of Christ, as the symbols, the saner synods, and the more learned fathers show.”  Melanchthon’s attempt was continued by his student Martin Chemnitz (1522-86) in his exhaustive Examination of the Council of Trent.  In this work Chemnitz develops a complex typology of ecclesiastical traditions.  He warns, on the one hand, against mistaking “antiquity of error and the multitude of the erring” for an indication of truth (1:219).  On the other hand, he appeals to “the consensus of the true, learned, and purer antiquity,” noting that “no dogma that is new in the churches and in conflict with all of antiquity should be accepted” (1:256-57).  All of these procedures are inevitably tainted with a degree of arbitrariness and circularity.  For this reason, the insistence of subsequent generations on the perfection of Scripture, and later on its inerrancy, can also be seen as an attempt to deal with the tension between Scripture and the growing role of the church’s tradition in its proper interpretation.  Especially in the face of attempts to treat the Bible as (also) a human document (nascent historical criticism), but also vis-à-vis those readings that saw the message of the Bible as from the beginning perverted by the institutional church (anti-Trinitarians) – tradition became increasingly indispensable.  To assert the Scriptures’ perfection and inerrancy was one method of coming to terms with that development, while remaining ostensibly faithful to scriptural sufficiency and clarity.  Still, in their flight from what would be seen as Catholicizing, the Lutherans ended up sharing their commitment to inerrancy with many of the groups which they wanted to place squarely in the heretical camp.

Copyright © 2009 by Piotr J. Malysz

One thought on “Lutheranism and Tradition

  1. Nathan

    Hmmm. How do we view these sources of authority: Scriptures, Creeds and Confessions, theologians (those having the rule of faith).

    Is it possible that the “Regula Fidei” is behind it all? (I am assuming that one of the aspects of this rule of faith is that persons are driven back to the voices of the earliest prophets, priests and teachers of the Church preserved in the Scriptures recognized by God’s people – i.e. since this treasure passed on to us in the Church’s historical voices is so important, it is right for persons to be instinctively driven back to the Sacred Scriptures time and again to test all things). I think this rule is found primarily in the Church’s hymns, liturgies, and prayers. Creeds and Confessions would basically be an attempt to, as best as one can, confess that rule, making something which is basically tacit or implicit explicit when things that mitigate that rule (i.e. are realized to be “out of bounds”) appear. The faithful, those possessing the Rule of Faith, then recognize the truth in those Creeds and Confessions.

    To my knowledge, Lutherans have never claimed that the rule of faith is unimportant – is it possible that “the rule of faith” is actually, created by, comprehended by, and in fact is the Gospel itself (i.e., that God promised to [O.T.], and now in these last days has, *reconciled the world to Himself*, or said anther way, God’s cosmic victory in the crucified and risen God-man Jesus Christ over the enemies of sin, death, and the devil) which has been imparted to living persons who pass it on, or “tradition” it (they pass on “faith” and “the faith”) – and that it is in fact just this which is the primary and foundational hermeneutical principle?

    How does this sound to you?

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