Polish Lutherans Facing Their Communist Past

The Case of Bishop Jagucki

In March 2007 the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession (ECAC) in Poland established a historical commission for the purpose of investigating the infiltration of the church’s structures by the communist secret police, or Security Service, as it was officially called. The ECAC, it must be added, was the first church body in Poland, including the Roman-Catholic church, to face its past in this manner.  The step earned it much praise from certain Catholic journalists and clergy who are to this day waiting for a similar act of institutional courage, as the Lutherans’ decision was then widely viewed.

Things, not surprisingly, were off to a rather slow start, given the intricacies of archival work, for which only some of the commission’s members were professionally qualified as either archivists or historians.  However, as time went by, what was initially seen as seriousness and caution gave way to the impression that the commission was, in reality, dragging its feet rather than fulfilling its mandate.  Its most important task was the investigation of the archival material pertaining to the church’s current leadership: the bishops, members of the Consistory and of the Syndical Council.

Reasons for this apparent reluctance became clear when, in September 2008, the nationwide daily Rzeczpospolita, published an article entitled The Pastor and the Security Service, by Lutheran journalist Cezary Gmyz.[1]  It brought the startling revelation that among political police informers in the church’s ranks was also its current presiding bishop (and, ironically, president of the commission’s supervisory college[2]), the Rt. Rev. Janusz Jagucki.  When elected Bishop of the Church in 2001, Jagucki never disclosed to the church that, as a pastor, he had for 17 years maintained secret contacts with the Security Service.  What the archival evidence now showed with painful clarity was not only Bishop Jagucki’s collaboration but also its more-than-willing character.

The historical commission eventually concurred in this judgment and, in March 2009, in a secret ballot declared Bishop Jagucki guilty of persistent and conscious collaboration with the communist secret police – a collaboration, the commission concluded, that had undeniably harmed the church.  Materials gathered in Jagucki’s thousand-page file, some of them in his own handwriting, show that, as a pastor, he was the one who often initiated meetings.  He informed widely on parishioners, fellow pastors, and even members of his own family, as well as undertaking to obtain intelligence of interest to the Security Service.  A particularly egregious example was Jagucki’s betrayal of a runaway from the German Democratic Republic who had turned to him for help.  For his collaboration Pastor Jagucki seems to have occasionally accepted small financial gifts (some signed receipts have been preserved).

Jagucki’s collaboration, it is now known, was hardly an isolated case.  The past three years have seen a flurry of historical studies of the Polish Lutheran church’s entanglement with the communist regime, including the first monograph which covers the years 1945-75.[3]  While there is little doubt that pastors who were secret informers remained a minority, it was clearly a significant and influential minority.  Today it is estimated that 20% to 30% of the clergy were, in some measure, Security Service informers.[4]  The figure, it seems, does not differ much from the level of infiltration of the Roman-Catholic church.  But there are several factors which make matters worse in the case of the Lutheran church.  The first is its small size.  With only 200 or so pastors, professional and personal interconnectedness is extremely high.  It is practically impossible not to know more than one perhaps should about fellow pastors.  Second, the informers were generally high-ranking church officials, diocesan superintendents, or pastors of prominent parishes.  They were the decision makers, and the fate of their brothers in the ministry often lay in their hands.  The Security Service was obviously interested in informers that were deemed valuable.  Finally, as the former military bishop, Ryszard Borski, notes in a biographical essay, students graduating from the Christian Theological Academy in Warsaw, in contrast to graduates of Catholic seminaries, received no preparation for, or even an informal warning about, the possibility of an enlistment attempt.  This made young Lutheran pastors all the more vulnerable in confrontation with the seemingly all-powerful communist apparatus of repression.[5]

In what follows, I shall situate Jagucki’s case against a larger, though necessarily selective, picture of Polish Lutheran pastors’ collaboration with the Security Service in the years 1945-89.  As noted, the extent of the problem is becoming clear only now.  What is disturbing, however, is not only that historians have shattered the all too convenient myth of the church’s victimization by the communist regime and brought to light the church’s complicity.  The problem also has a present-day side.  The investigative work has been taken over by individuals, many of them professional historians, with no institutional ties of dependence to the ECAC.  This has been a reaction to what is seen as the church’s lack of real interest in coming to terms with its communist past.  Once it became clear that too many members of the ECAC’s current leadership would be implicated and would then have to act as judges in their own case, the historical commission’s enthusiasm seems to have petered out.  Already in Bishop Jagucki’s case, the commission showed itself to be susceptible to those who are decidedly not interested in raking things up because the church’s communist past is also very much their own past.  Church-political maneuvering has effectively reduced the commission’s activity to issuing warnings against hasty conclusions, with which it typically greets the results of others’ investigation.

However, if there were some in the church’s leadership who expected the problem eventually to go away or remain of interest only to a handful of historians, they have so far been proved wrong.  The perceived political maneuvering in the church’s highest ranks has given rise to a largely lay-led grassroots initiative concerned about the ECAC’s moral voice.  The emergence of this group has brought to light a dangerous fault line between the church’s clerical leaders, resorting to self-defensive theological platitudes, and a minority group of mostly younger lay persons who are concerned about the credibility of the ECAC’s witness.  I shall return to this in the final portion of this article.

 

Polish Lutherans and the Communist Government

Let me begin with some background.  In the interwar period, there were several Lutheran and Union churches in Poland.  The largest of those, with some 425,000 members, was the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, headquartered in Warsaw.  Its general superintendent and then presiding bishop was, throughout the entire period, the Rt. Rev. Juliusz Bursche, widely known for his pro-Polish sympathies.  The ECAC was largely Polish speaking, though with a substantial German-speaking minority.  The Prussian Union churches had some 270,000 members and were predominantly German in ethnicity.  Altogether Lutheran, Union and Reformed Christians added up to 2.6% of the population.[6]

The losses suffered by the Lutherans during World War II were incalculable.  At the war’s outbreak, the ECAC had 227 clergymen, of whom 125 declared Polish nationality.  Of those 125, 63 were arrested by the Nazis, 39 were sent to concentration camps, and 3 murdered in prison.  The ECAC was also the only Polish church body to lose its leader.  Already in early October 1939, the Nazis arrested Bishop Bursche, who had refused to leave the country and issued a statement condemning Germany’s aggression.  Bishop Bursche was then sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on charges of participation in the Versailles Peace Conference and betrayal of the Germans in Poland.  He died in uncertain circumstances in 1942.[7]  When the War ended, Poland had 352 Lutheran places of worship, served by only 42 pastors.  The total number of Lutherans in the first years after the war is estimated at 235,000.[8]  (At present the ECAC has some 80,000 members.)

The war’s end brought no relief but a host of new challenges.  In 1945 Poland found itself within new borders, with a large portion of its pre-war territory annexed by the Soviet Union and with new territorial gains in the west, granted at Germany’s expense by Stalin and his western allies.  The country was ruled by a communist government, entirely dependent on Stalin’s orders and legitimated solely by the presence of Soviet troops and the ever-expanding apparatus of terror.  Even after a considerable relaxation of the Soviet grip on the country, which took place during the 1954-56 period of de-Stalinization, the reality in which the Lutherans had to function was that of a state that sought far-reaching control over the lives and socio-political aspirations of its citizens.

What made matters even worse for the Lutherans was the popular post-war stereotype which portrayed them as Nazi sympathizers, or at best a foreign, German element in the native Catholic soil.  The only exception was the former Duchy of Cieszyn in Austrian Silesia, where Lutheranism was traditionally associated with Polish ethnicity; it remained a Lutheran stronghold.  In other parts of the country, the Lutherans were dispersed and forcibly thrust into an ethic mold many did not identify with.  The years immediately following the war saw numerous takeovers, despite protests, of Lutheran churches by Catholics on the pretext that the buildings were former German property.

The weakness of the ECAC – which in 1947 became, by law, the sole Lutheran church in Poland, incorporating both former Union and Old Lutheran parishes – made it turn to the government for protection.  But, not surprisingly, the government was only interested in guaranteeing the ECAC’s legal rights because it saw a place for the Lutherans in its own plans.  One of the Lutheran church’s abiding roles was to weaken the position of the Catholic church, which by virtue of its sheer size remained the only real competitor and threat in the communist struggle for the rule of souls.

In addition to this intermediate propaganda function (the government’s goal was not, after all, to have Catholics turned into Lutherans), there were also other roles that the government, at various times, envisaged for the Lutheran church.  Among them was, in the 1950s, the polonization (though here the government also feared accidental clericalization) of the native population of the former East Prussia.[9]  The government was also interested in monitoring Lutherans’ institutional and private contacts with the West, which became possible again after 1956.  The ECAC could perform this function less obtrusively.  Further, because of its contacts with the West, the Lutheran church served a vital role in presenting Poland as a country where freedom of belief and other civil rights were respected.  The church also proved useful in supporting the Polish government’s and even the entire Soviet block’s policies in face of their western detractors.  Notorious in this regard is Presiding Bishop Andrzej Wantuła’s reference to the Berlin Wall as “a wall of peace.”[10]  Last but not least, the communist regime, by its very nature, even aside from those goals, remained vitally interested in the activities of the church as a potential source of discontentment and subversion.

All of those roles necessitated the predictability of the church’s actions and its close cooperation with the authorities.  After 1956 this was to be achieved not through direct coercion, as in the Stalinist period, but through intrigue and indirect control, exercised by means of a network of reliable secret informers within the church’s ranks.  This is not to say that there were no informers in the church prior to 1956.  Far from it.  But once the government was no longer concerned with the imminent suppression of all church life, the issue of control became more pressing, while at the same time more complex and requiring greater sensitivity.

Interestingly enough, as one historian has observed, it is chiefly among the older generation of pastors who survived the war that one comes across skepticism and criticism of the new political reality.  An informer’s report accuses one pastor of having said at a pastoral conference in 1953: “It is our task to proclaim not that social change or the 6-year plan is important but that God’s Word is.  One must not engage in polemics during instruction, so that the other side might not accuse us of activism; but one must present the most important information where their textbooks attack our positions.  It is not so bad, because their teachers don’t believe yet what their textbooks say.”[11]  Likewise, one must admire the Kraków pastor, Karol Kubisz, who, after he had been forced to sign an informer’s agreement in 1953, not only did not deliver on it but, when repeatedly pressed by the Security Service officer, retorted that “he has his own job and is not going to snitch on people.”  This, it seems, put an end to any further demands for collaboration.[12]

In this light, it seems all the more surprising that, with Stalinist terror gone, so many pastors agreed “willingly” (if one is to believe the recruiters’ reports) to serve as secret informers.  What motivated them?  So far, according to Jan Szturc, the archives have not yielded a single case of blackmail pertaining to the informer’s financial dealings or his private life.  Most informers actually seem to have been driven by a desire to gain a position of prominence in the church.  The prevalent sentiment appears to have been that one could not make a career in the church without government support.  Another common type of motivation had to do with obtaining goods that were scarce, such as a passport to be able to travel abroad, as well as some types of material goods and other favors.  Among motivating factors was also fear of Roman-Catholic dominance: as long as the Catholic church suffered government restrictions, the restrictions imposed on the Lutherans did not matter.[13]

This latter reason is related to how some informers justified their collaboration to themselves: they were doing it for the good of the church, since both the communists and the Lutherans shared a common enemy, the Catholic church.  However, the good of the church was, according to Szturc, invoked merely for the sake of appeasing one’s conscience.  The guiding officers’ reports convey practically no expectations, on the informers’ part, of benefits to the church at large or to the informer’s own parish.  There were also a number of other strategies that helped one to appease a guilty conscience.  In some cases, the informers refused financial remuneration, though usually they did not shy away from accepting small gifts.  The Security Service also stopped requiring written declarations of collaboration, which may have created the impression of an informal, though secret, chat instead of a confidential exchange of sensitive information.  Not without importance here was, finally, the fact that some informers may have been led to believe that the information they divulged was only insignificant gossip.  The most common excuse one hears today is “What I said didn’t hurt anyone” – even though this cannot be anything more than a subjective impression.

There remains no doubt that the Security Service achieved its goal in regard to the Lutheran church.  Grzegorz Bębnik notes that “The saturation of the ECAC’s structures with informers was so high that not infrequently several informers, knowing nothing of one another, informed on one another.”  An informer that stands out, in particular, is the former superintendent of the Katowice Diocese, Rev. Adolf Hauptman.  His extensive connections to various Lutheran and charity organizations in the West and the seriousness with which he took his task earned him the reputation of an especially valuable source of operationally worthy intelligence.  In fact, he was such a prized informer that his guiding officer came to his funeral with a wreath in gratitude for the 31 years of fruitful collaboration.[14]  For many informers in the church’s ranks collaboration ended automatically only when Poland became a free country.

 

Problems with Repentance

In light of its sluggish performance to date, one can only speculate about why the ECAC’s historical commission was formed at all and what it was hoped it might find in the Security Service archives.  What is certain is that the decision to establish the commission followed the 2006 revision of the lustration law, which requires some public officials to submit lustration statements disclosing their dealings, if any, with the communist secret police.  The truthfulness of these statements is then vetted by the Institute of National Remembrance, where the Secret Service archives are now deposited.  Those found to be “lustration liars” are barred from public office.

The lustration law does not, of course, extend to churches.  However, the opening of the Security Service archives led some in the church to express concern about its moral authority – especially if it were to be historians and journalists, rather than the church itself, who first made public, and then passed judgment on, the unsavory pages in the ECAC’s history.  Concern about moral credibility, as well as the issue of timing, was certainly at play in the establishment of the ECAC’s historical commission.  It must be mentioned, further, that the archives are preserved only partially, many files having been destroyed in 1989-90.  For someone aspiring to public office, not to disclose one’s past may, therefore, be a risk worth taking.  Yet in reality, as we now know, even if operational reports are missing, the pseudonym of an actual informer appears in so many places that the fact of collaboration is generally beyond doubt.  The Security Service was not stupid enough to be fobbed off with worthless information; it carefully evaluated and verified operational reports, for example, against other informers’ accounts.[15]  There is thus a paper trail even if actual reports no longer exist.  Given the partial nature of the preserved files, it was perhaps hoped (if so, then rather naively) that the church would find in the archival material only confirmation of its self-perception as victim – as “a hostage of the times” (as a 2003 publication of the Polish Ecumenical Council described the Protestant churches in Poland and Germany in the 20th century).  But that was not to be.

Since Bishop Jagucki’s secret, conscious and harmful collaboration with the Security Service became public knowledge, the response of the ECAC’s leadership has been hubristic in the extreme.  The commission’s decision brought to light the tremendous pressure exerted on its members by the Consistory and the bishops, clearly stunned by what one could find in the archives and determined not to allow matters to progress any further.  Following the confirmation of Jagucki’s collaboration and in the absence of any remorse on his part, military bishop Ryszard Borski put forth a motion to the Synodical Assembly for Bishop Jagucki’s immediate retirement.  To prevent the motion from being considered, Bishop Jagucki and his supporters asked that a vote of confidence be taken first, evidently hoping it would be in his favor.  This turned out to be only a partial victory: the vote failed, but only by a simple, rather than absolute, majority.  This led to the shortening of Jagucki’s term, but allowed him to remain in office for another 8 months.  He was then retired with full benefits, even though he never served a full term as bishop and to this day has repeatedly refused to recognize the harm his actions caused, let alone apologize.  He remains the vice-president of the Polish Ecumenical Council, and the ECAC’s representative in that body.  Earlier this year he also took a part in the consecration of a new diocesan bishop.

Before leaving office, Bishop Jagucki made sure – in what is widely viewed as an act of revenge – that the military bishop would not be reelected for another term but rather forced into an early retirement.  This was not difficult to accomplish, considering there are still some 20 pastors, registered as Secret Service informers, who currently occupy high-ranking positions in the ECAC.  Until earlier this year, the number also included four of the six diocesan bishops (at present it is down to three).  This entire group reacts allergically to the idea of raking up the past and even more so to calls to accountability and repentance.  Most, it seems, would simply like to reach retirement age without having to face any uncomfortable questions.

However, being left in peace may no longer be an option in the era of the Internet.  The sense of incredulity at the political maneuvering of Bishop Jagucki and his camp has led to the rise of a mostly lay-led Internet forum where rank-and-file Lutherans have been able to comment on the state of the ECAC and the hubris of its leadership.[16]  Some members of the forum appear to be historians with access to the Security Service archives, some are journalists; most are concerned laity, joined by a handful of pastors, usually appearing under pseudonyms.

What brings them all together is their worry about the church’s moral credibility in today’s world.  But there is also a theological concern.  The ECAC’s renunciation of its own moral voice for the sake of self-preservation is symptomatic of an underlying perversion of the Lutheran teaching on justification.  Why repent if humans are justified apart from works?  This attitude, it is widely felt, seems to pervade the misguided actions of the ECAC’s leadership.  It has taken the place of the genuinely Lutheran question: Why not repent?  Why not repent when, thanks to our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, the entire life of believers can be one of repentance?  This moral-theological concern is coupled with a feeling of exasperation and even anger at the self-preserving actions of the ECAC’s leaders.  Yet there is also a growing sense of confidence not only that God will preserve the church but also that members of Christ’s body themselves can, and indeed should, bring about a change.

To date only the bishop of the Katowice Diocese, Tadeusz Szurman, has responded to the growing criticism.  “Let us not demand admission of guilt on the part of those who feel innocent,” he cautions in his post, “we have seen this before and it was the darkest side of totalitarianism.  Church members always have the right to make critical remarks, but do not forget about the dignity of people of faith and the image of our community on the outside.”[17]  Szurman is, of course, right that to insist on a confession of guilt from an innocent person is immoral.  But there is a difference between an innocent person and a person who merely feels innocent.  Szurman himself is among the bishops registered as Security Service informers.  By his own admission, he met with a guiding officer several times but offered no information and, therefore, does not feel the need to apologize.  It is especially in cases like Szurman’s that one should have the courage, as Cezary Gmyz postulates, to petition for auto-lustration in order to have one’s name cleared.  This procedure entrusts the tracking down and analysis of the archival material to a specially established court.  The court determines, on the basis of the extant evidence, not only the fact of secret collaboration but also whether it was conscious and caused actual harm.  A pastor registered as an informer should take advantage of this procedure in his own interest and in the interest of those he serves.

Unfortunately, the current presiding bishop, the Rt. Rev. Jerzy Samiec, seems largely inclined to let sleeping dogs lie.  He was, in any case, elected on the platform of putting a stop to lustration proceedings and had himself played a role, as Synodical Assembly President, in the maneuvering that was to save Bishop Jagucki’s head.  The sentiment, prevalent among the current leadership, remains that expressed by the historical commission’s chair, Dawid Binemann-Zdanowicz, shortly before the meeting that was to decide Bishop Jagucki’s guilt.  In a letter to the Consistory, Zdanowicz accused pastors who had refused to collaborate with the communist secret police of harming the church.  “Every pastor,” he wrote, “knew that the Security Service was the secret political police, and that showing hostility to or disregarding its representatives was obvious foolhardiness and an activity that harmed the church.”[18]  What all this means in practice can be illustrated by the example of one pastor who was legally declared a victim of secret informers among fellow pastors.  This pastor has been denied the right to have the court sentence published in the church’s official periodical “for fear of causing grief to those on the other side.”[19]

Given all this, it remains to wish perseverance to the concerned laity of the ECAC, as they call on the church to face its past with integrity.  They seem to have a better sense of what a life of repentance and enjoyment of God’s forgiveness might be all about.  Already in this, there is hope.

____________________________
NOTES:
[1] Cezary Gmyz, “Pastor i Bezpieka,” Rzeczpospolita (26 September 2008).

[2] Throughout this article I shall make no distinction between the commission as made up of two research teams, on the one hand, and the supervisory college, distinct from those, on the other.  I shall simply refer to “the commission” and take it for granted that it is the college that has actual decisional powers.  The historical commission’s statute is available via the ECAC’s website at http://www.luteranie.pl/pl/materialy/Statut%20KH.pdf.

[3] Ryszard Borski, “Doświadczenia życia w komunizmie jako duszpasterskie i historyczne wyzwanie [The Experience of Life under Communism as a Pastoral and Historical Challenge]”; and Cezary Gmyz, “Co kryje archiwum IPN?”  Both articles can be found at http://www.luteranie.net.

[4] Jarosław Kłaczkow, Kościół Ewangelicko-Augsburski w Polsce w latach 1945-1975 (Toruń: Adam Marszałek, 2010).

[5] Not insignificant here is the fact that the Academy was (and to this day remains) a state school, created and supported by the government after the expulsion of the Lutheran Theology Faculty from the University of Warsaw in 1954.

[6] The data come from the 1931 census.  For a more detailed breakdown, see Elżbieta Alabrudzińska, Protestantyzm w Polsce w latach 1918-1939 (Toruń: Adam Marszałek, 2009), 90.

[7] For a discussion of the German atrocities committed against Polish Lutheran clergy, see Woldemar Gastpary, Protestantyzm w Polsce w dobie dwóch wojen światowych (Warszawa: ChAT, 1981), 203-218.

[8] Kłaczkow, Kościół Ewangelicko-Augsburski, 105.

[9] Ryszard Michalak, “Kościoły Protestanckie w koncepcjach i działaniach Urzędu do Spraw Wyznań (1950-1989),” Jarosław Kłaczkow (ed.), Polski Protestanztyzm w czasach nazizmu i komunizmu (Toruń: Adam Marszałek, 2009), 176-77.

[10] Kłaczkow, Kościół Ewangelicko-Augsburski, 305ff.  Wantuła remains a controversial figure.  He was by all accounts an excellent pastor, theology professor, and church leader.  During the war he was imprisoned in the Mathausen-Gusen concentration camp for refusing to deliver his sermons in German.  It was through his efforts that the Polish Lutheran church hosted the 1961 meeting of the Executive Council of the Lutheran World Federation.  In recognition of talents, Wantuła was elected Vice-President of the LWF at its 1963 assembly in Helsinki.  At the same time, as Bishop of the Church (1959-75), he remained completely loyal to the communist authorities.  By doing so, he arguably contributed to the stabilization of the church’s situation.

[11] Cited in Grzegorz Bębnik, “Od »Górala« do »Gustawa« – zwierzchnicy Kościoła ewangelicko-augsburskiego na Górnym Śląsku wobec aparatu bezpieczeństwa w świetle dokumentów z archiwów Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej (szkic problemu),” Aparat Represji w Polsce Ludowej 1944-1989 (2008), 1:52, 54.

[12] The citation comes form a guiding officer’s report.  Cited in Grzegorz Bębnik, “Historia jednego werbunku: Ks. Karola Kubisza zmagania z UB,” Kłaczkow (ed.), Polski Protestanztyzm, 339.

[13] For a comprehensive overview, see Jan Szturc, “Duchowni Kościoła Ewangelicko-Augsburskiego w PRL wobec Służby Bezpieczeństwa (1956-1989),” Kłaczkow (ed.), Polski Protestanztyzm, 284-92.

[14] I owe this information to Bębnik, “Od »Górala« do »Gustawa«,” 53, 59-61.

[15] To the reliability of the archives, see Szturc, “Duchowni Kościoła,” 280-82.

[16] At http://www.luteranieforum.org.  See also http://www.luteranie.net, which is run by some concerned pastors who have had the courage to speak up and to oppose the direction in which the church is currently heading.  This group includes the military bishop emeritus.

[17] Tadeusz Szurman, http://www.luteranieforum.org (in a post dated 17 November 2010).

[18] In a letter written from Ciechocinek and dated 23 March 2009.

[19] Tadeusz Konik, “Odmieńcy,” at http://www.luteranie.net.

Piotr J. Malysz

This article appeared in the quarterly Lutheran Forum 45:2 (Summer 2011), pp. 36-41.


Theological Fragments: The necessary hiddenness

“The possibility of setting up an unmixed congregation of true believers was ruled out, not so much by the human weakness of the Wittenbergers as by vital theological considerations. The attempt to create a pure church is an attempt to circumvent the necessary hiddenness of God’s people. The small, despised, community of faith, the faithful remnant of true believes gathered around the appointed signs, once it set itself apart from (above?) the wider mixed community and pronounces itself the ‘Church’ becomes by that very act the proud self-exalting Church which glorifies in its birthright; the ‘false church’ par excellence.”

–Jonathan Trigg, Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther, 183

Theological Fragments: The satis est; enough is enough

“The satis est calls us, surely, to believe and confess that the gospel and the sacraments are indeed enough. No doubt the irony of it all is that that seems precisely the hardest thing for churches and theologians to agree on. But what can be done about that? If we have listened to Luther, and learned anything at all from the recovery of his theology, I expect we will just have to say, “nothing!” It is simply not a matter of attempting to repair the supposed inadequacy of the satis est by adding or subtracting this or that. It is not a matter of a list of “things,” doctrinally or otherwise. It is rather a matter of the specific activity of preaching the gospel–learning how to do that and sticking to it.”

–Gerhard Forde, “The Meaning of Satis Est,” A More Radical Gospel, pg 170

A Brief Introduction to Confession and Absolution

Justification by Faith in Action

By John T. Pless

Justification is both a problem and solution. Oswald Bayer has described human existence as forensically structured[1]. That is to say, that life demands justification. Listen to the way people respond when confronted with a failure. It is the language of self-defense, rationalization, or blaming. No human being wants to be wrong. Or listen to the eulogies delivered at the memorial rites for unbelievers. They are, more often than not, attempts to vocalize why the deceased person’s life was worthwhile. They seek to justify his or her existence. If one is not justified by faith in Christ, one will seek justification elsewhere in attitude or action.

To confess your sin is to cease the futile attempt to self-justify. Rather it is to join with David in saying to God: “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you might be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4). In confession, the sinner acknowledges that God is right. It is to agree with God’s verdict: Guilty.

But to speak of guilt requires some clarification today for another word has come to attach itself to guilt. So we speak of guilt feelings. Guilt is seen as the subjective reaction of the doer to the deed, i.e., how I feel about what I have done[2]. But this is not the case with the Scriptures use of the word guilt. In the Bible guilt has not so much to do with emotions as it does with what happens in a courtroom when a judge declares the defendant, “guilty.” The criminal may or may not have reactions of remorse, regret or shame. It doesn’t matter. The verdict of the judge establishes the reality. God’s word of law unerring establishes His judgment. There is no appeal.

To deny the verdict means that the truth is not in us says the Apostle John. But denial can never bring release. Only God’s absolution can release from the accusation of the law and unlock the sinner from his sins. Lutheran theology is nothing if it is not realistic! Like the Scriptures, Lutheran theology does not start with notions about human freedom and the potential (great or small) that human beings have. Theologies that start with assumptions about human freedom end up in bondage[3]. Lutheran theology begins with man’s bondage in sin and ends up with the glorious liberty of the Gospel. The bondage to sin is not a slight defect that can be corrected by appropriate self-discipline. Neither is it a sickness that can be cured by the appropriation of the medication of regular doses of God’s grace. Sin is enmity with the Creator that carries with it God’s verdict of guilt and a divinely-imposed death sentence. To be a sinner is to be held captive in death and condemnation. The distance between God and humanity is not the gap between infinity and the finite but between a Holy God who is judge and man who is the guilty defendant.

Confession is the acknowledgment of this reality. So in rite of individual confession and absolution we pray: “I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all my sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most….”(LSB, 292). The sin is named not in an effort to “get it off my chest” but to acknowledge it before the Lord to whom no secrets are hid. Where sin is not confessed, it remains festering and corrosive, addicting the sinner to yet another go at self-justification. Confession admits defeat and so leaves the penitent open for a word that declares righteousness, a verdict which justifies. That word is called absolution. It is absolution alone, says Gerhard Forde that is the answer to absolute claim of God who is inescapably present to the sinner.[4]

The focus in confession and absolution is not on the confession per se, but on the absolution. Disconnected from the absolution, confession turns into just another effort to save ourselves. Then the old Adam begins to reckon that he is right with God because his confession was so completely sincere or deeply heartfelt. Or that he has been so pious and courageous to make individual confession a part of his regular spiritual discipline. In the medieval church, the requirement of no less than an annual trip to the confessional booth and the enumeration of specific sins had transformed confession into a spiritual torture chamber rather than an occasion for broken bones to be made glad in the Word from the Lord: “I forgive you all your sins.” It is at this point that Luther filters the old practice of private confession through the sieve of the Gospel so that it could be reclaimed for the sake of terrified consciences. Thus Luther develops five major points in his “A Brief Exhortation to Confession” included in the Large Catechism:

  • Confession should be voluntary and free of papal tyranny.
  • The practice of confession ought to be free of the unreasonable and tortuous demand that the penitent be able to enumerate his sins.
  • People should be taught how to use confession evangelically for the comfort of terrified consciences.
  • Christian liberty ought not be used as an excuse for setting private confession aside.
  • Private confession stands with other forms of confession in the church (fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer where we confess to God and the neighbor).[5]

These pastoral themes are reflected in Luther’s short order of confession included in the Small Catechism.[6] The insertion of a short order of confession between Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar was intended by Luther to catechize people in the evangelical use of confession and absolution. “Luther’s discussion of confession, along with the shape of his liturgical rite, shows how he redefines its essence and practice so that it ceases to be a burden and instead becomes an instrument by which the Gospel is conveyed personally to an individual”[7]

In this new version of an ancient rite, the pastor is not there as an ecclesiastical detective to flush out hidden transgressions or an inspector who must assure that standards of quality control are indiscriminately applied to penitential acts. Neither is the pastor a therapist trafficking in slogans of affirmation, a ministry of presence (whatever that frightening term might mean!), or a coach to get you enabled for a sanctified life. No, the pastor is here as the ear and the voice of the Good Shepherd. His words of forgiveness are not his own, but the Lord who has sent him (see John 20:21-23).

The ear of the pastor becomes the grave that forever conceals the corpse of sin. It is buried there never to be disinterred. In fact the pastor’s ordination vow puts him under orders never to divulge the sins confessed to him. Never means never. Pastors learn to practice God’s own forgetfulness of sins (see Psalm 103:9-14). Sins confessed to the pastor are sealed away in silence.

But the pastor’s lips are not sealed. He has a verdict to announce on the basis of the death of the Righteous One for the unrighteous. Your sin is not loaded on your own shoulders. It is carried by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He takes it to Calvary. There it was answered for in His own blood.  His verdict is the absolution: “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” That is justification in faith in action. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).


Appendix: Theses on the Seal of Confession

  1. The pastor hears confession by virtue of his office as Christ’s servant. Thus the pastor is both the ear and mouth of Christ for the penitent. It is Christ who hears the sins that are confessed to the pastor and it is Christ who absolves sinners through the word spoken by the pastor (Luke 10:16, Small Catechism V)
  2. Ordination places the pastor under orders to forgive and retain sins (John 20:19-23). This is the work of the office. He is not set in office as a servant of the state but of the church. In this office, the pastor must render unto God, the things that belong to God (Matthew 22:15-21). That is the pastor is obligated to render faithfulness to God in the stewardship of the means of grace.
  3. In the ordination vow, the candidate solemnly promises to perform the duties of the office in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. The candidate explicitly promises “never to divulge the sins confessed to you” (Lutheran Service Book Agenda, 166) Men should make this vow only after careful and prayerful study of the Sacred Scriptures and the Book of Concord. This vow is made coram Deo with the knowledge that such vows are promises made to God Himself (see Numbers 30:1-2; Ecclesiastes 5:1-7).
  4. This vow obligates the pastor to complete and utter secrecy in respect to the sins that are confessed to him for God Himself removes these sins from the penitent and remembers them no more (see Psalm 103:8-12). “For the sake of timid consciences and to preserve the integrity of confessional conversations, the pastor promises in his ordination vows ‘never to divulge the sins confessed to him’”. (LSB-A, 39).
  5. For a pastor to reveal sins that have been confessed to him contradicts the forgiveness bestowed by Christ. This renders the pastor a hireling who is no longer capable of the trust of Christ’s Church and, therefore, must be removed from office (Ezekiel 34:1-11). When a shepherd exhumes that which Christ has buried in the forgiveness of sins, he exposes the sheep entrusted to his care to a variety of dangers, not the least of which is the temptation to unbelief and despair. A pastor who is unable to keep the promises of the ordination is not above reproach (I Timothy 3:2) and is untrustworthy (Proverbs 11:13).
  6. The silence that the pastor must keep may inflict upon the pastor severe pangs of conscience and possible legal action. Nevertheless, the pastor is not authorized to break the silence imposed upon him by the office. He may not forsake his sheep when threatened (John 10:11-13). This is a cross that it laid upon the pastoral office. If civil authorities seek to force the pastor to speak of sins that have been confessed to him, he must resist rendering unto Caesar that which belongs to God alone (Matthew 22:15-21).
  7. In his teaching and preaching, the pastor will need to catechize his people regarding the seal of the confession so that they have the confidence to confess their sins and receive absolution without the fear of betrayal.
  8. The confessional seal does not mean that the pastor has no legal or moral obligation to report or give testimony to immoral or illegal activity that may be reported to him or discovered by him in contexts outside of confession. A distinction is made between what is confessed to the pastor by a penitent and what is revealed to the pastor by one seeking protection from abuse or harm.

[1] See Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification, trans. G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 1-9.

[2] On this point see the discussion of Werner Elert, The Christian Ethos, trans. Carl Schindler (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 163-173. Elert traces the subjective understanding of guilt to F. Schleiermacher.

[3] On this point see Gerhard Forde, The Captivation of the Will (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 21.

[4] Gerhard Forde, “Absolution: Systematic Considerations” in The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament, edited by Mark C. Mattes and Steven Paulson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 153.

[5] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 476-480.

[6] The Book of Concord, 360-362.

[7] Charles Arand, That I May Be His Own: An Overview of Luther’s Catechisms (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 169.

—————————-

For Further Reading

Girgensohn, Herbert. Teaching Luther’s Catechism – Volume 2, trans. John W. Doberstein. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960

Krispin, Gerald. “Philip Jacob Spener and the Demise of the Practice of Holy Absolution in the Lutheran Church” Logia (Reformation 1999), 9-18

Kuhlman, Brent. “Holy Absolution: Rejoicing in the Gift” Lutheran Forum (Fall, 1997), 29-33

Peters, Albrecht. Kommentar zu Luthers Katechismen-Band 5. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994

Pless, John T. Confession: God Gives Truth. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006

Pless, John T. “Your Pastor is Not Your Therapist: Private Confession-The Ministry of Repentance and Faith” Logia (Eastertide 2001), 21-26

Rittgers, Ronald K. “Luther on Private Confession” in The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology edited by Timothy J. Wengert. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009, pp. 211-230

Rittgers, Ronald K. The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004


John T. Pless is a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

A Lutheran Influence (Part 3)

Go to Part 2

III. Justification/Good Works and Eucharistic Presence: A Case Study

Justification/Good Works. Justification might rightly be characterised as the most important doctrine for Luther and the Lutheran Reformation. It was elevated to the status of (and still holds today for much of Lutheranism) the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls. In the Augsburg Confession, justification is treated in the fourth article:

Our churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by     their own strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor   and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in his sight (Rom. 3-4).[1]

What needs to be highlighted in the AC’s teaching on justification is that human beings “cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works”. Instead, humankind is “freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith”. The stress of the AC is upon teaching that humans cannot earn salvation nor justify themselves in God’s eyes. It is only through faith (in the promises of God) that humans are justified on the basis of Christ’s justifying and salvific work.

In The Ten Articles (1536), which were penned shortly after the English delegates returned from Wittenberg and hence were influenced by The Wittenberg Articles, we read that justification “signifieth remission of our sins and our acceptation or reconciliation into the grace and favour of God…our perfect renovation in Christ.”[2] They proceed to state that sinners attain justification “by contrition and faith joined with charity…not as though our contrition or faith, or any works preceding thereof, can worthily merit or deserve to obtain said justification…” Instead, it is only the grace and mercy of the Father, promised to us for the sake of His Son, and the merits of his blood and passion, that are the only sufficient causes of our justification.[3]

Here we see the effects of the Wittenberg meetings upon the English doctrinal formulations as it is stressed that justification signifies the remission of sins and his or her acceptance and reconciliation into the grace and favour of God, or “our perfect renovation in Christ.” What is interesting is the stressed laid upon the role of good works in the life of a human being, both before and after justification, which is given much ink in The Ten Articles. It was stated that sinners attain justification by contrition and faith “joined with charity.” If this statement was left as it is, Lutherans probably would object, saying that our good works in no way contribute to our justification. But here we might see even more of the Lutheran influence as The Ten Articles precede to make the important caveat that works which precede our justification can in no way merit said justification. Instead, stress is laid upon the duty of the justified following his or her justification, stating that we must have good works of charity and obedience to God. Further, while the attainment of everlasting life is conjoined with justification “yet our good works be necessarily required to the attaining of everlasting life…”[4]

The Lutheran reformers were not blind to this vital, and possibly contentious, relationship between faith and good works, for they were “falsely accused of forbidding good works.”[5] They proceeded to confess that “our works cannot reconcile God or merit forgiveness of sins and grace…”,[6] hence dealing with the status of works prior to justification. But as the Ten Articles would later proceed to do, so to the framers of the AC treated of works subsequent to a sinner’s justification, stating “Our teachers teach in addition that it is necessary to do good works, not that we should trust to merit grace by them but because it is the will of God.”[7] While there is great consonance between the AC and The Ten Articles on both works prior and subsequent to justification, one could quibble that the traditionalist views of Henry still worked their influence in the statement of The Ten Articles due to the confession that our good works are “necessarily required to the attaining of everlasting life.”

According to Gerald Bray, The Ten Articles “remained part of the Church of England’s official statements until 1553, when they were superseded by The Forty-two Articles of Edward VI…”[8] In The Forty-Two Articles we find the articles treating of justification and good works separated. In Article 11, “Of the Justification of Man”, we read that “Justification by only faith in Jesus Christ, in that sense, as is declared in Homily of Justification, is a most certain and wholesome doctrine for Christian men.”[9] Apart from appealing to the Homily of Justification, these articles leave the source of justification simply to “only faith in Jesus Christ.” What The Forty-Two Articles do make explicit in Article 12 is the place of good works done before justification: “Works done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesu Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or…deserve grace of congruity…”[10] This is quite a bit more explicit and finds consonance with Article XX of the AC, where it stated that “whoever trusts that he merits grace by works despises the merit and grace of Christ and seeks a way to God without Christ, by human strength…”[11]

In 1563 & 1571, under the reign of Elizabeth I, The Thirty-Eight Articles and Thirty-Nine Articles respectively were issued. The wording of The Forty-Two Articles was replaced in 1563 with, “We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only, is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is explained in the Homily of Justification.”[12] Here justification is more fully explained than in The Forty-Two Articles, with stress laid upon the merit of Jesus Christ, by faith only and not by our own works or merits. This same wording and confession is replicated in The Thirty-Nine Articles.

The article on works before justification in The Forty-Two Articles becomes Article 13 in both the 38 and 39 Articles with virtually no change to the wording. What is added to The Thirty-Eight and Thirty-Nine Articles is a confession of “Good Works”, Article 12, and is consonant with the Lutheran reformers teaching on the same. Article 12 reads, “Albeit that good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith, in so much that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known, as a tree discerned by the fruit.”[13] This same confession of the place of good works is found once again in Article 20 of the AC, where it reads, “…through faith the Holy Spirit is received, hearts are so renewed and endowed with new affections as to be able to bring forth good works.”[14]

In this first instance, regarding the articles of justification/good works, we can evidently see great consonance and a growing congruence between the confession of faith in The Augsburg Confession and documentary developments of The Church of England. While there might have a Henrician influence on the earlier documents, with vestiges of a semi-Pelagians “works righteousness”, later developments are much more consonant with the Lutheran insistence on justification being by grace alone through the merits of Jesus Christ and good works being necessary for the Christian life but not determinative of a person’s justification.

Eucharistic Presence. Contrary to the consonance witnessed between the AC and the documentary developments of the Church of England in regards to justification and good works, in the area of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist we find less congruence. The Augsburg Confession is quite straightforward in its confession regarding the Lord’s Supper, and simply states, “Our churches teach that the body and blood of Christ are truly present and are distributed to those who eat in the Supper of the Lord. They disapprove of those who teach otherwise.”[15] Luther was just as succinct in his own explanations of the presence of Christ in the Sacrament, most notably in his Small Catechism where he writes, “Instituted by Christ himself, it is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, given to us Christians to eat and to drink.”[16]

Significantly, as a result of the meetings in Wittenberg in 1535, the English delegates were part of the formulation of The Wittenberg Articles, which, on the issue of the Lord’s Supper, read, “…we firmly believe and teach that in the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood, Christ’s body and blood are truly, substantially and really present under the species of bread and wine, and that under the same species they are truly and bodily presented and distributed to all those who receive the sacrament.”[17] While these articles never attained official status for the Church of England, their wording did make its way into official texts.

For instance, in The Ten Articles of the same year (1536), we read, “…we will that all bishops and preachers shall instruct and teach our people…that they ought and must constantly believe, that under the form and figure of bread and wine, which we there presently do see and perceive by outward senses, is verily, substantially and really contained and comprehended the very selfsame body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ…and that under the same form and figure of bread and wine the very selfsame body and blood of Christ is corporally, really and in the very substance exhibited, distributed and received unto and of all them which receive the said sacrament…”[18] Much of the wording used here in The Ten Articles is verbatim from The Wittenberg Articles. By 1538, in The Thirteen Articles, nothing had changed as it reads, “Concerning the eucharist, we continue to believe and teach that in the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, the body and blood of Christ are truly, substantially and really present under the forms of bread and wine. And that under these forms they are truly and really offered and administered to those who receive the sacrament, whether they be good or evil.”[19]

By the time we reach The Forty-Two Articles one can rightly judge that the language of Eucharistic presence has softened. Article 29, “Of the Lord’s Supper,” states, “Insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily and with faith receive the same, the bread which we break is a communion of the body of Christ, likewise the cup of blessing is a communion of the blood of Christ.” While this might be a softening of earlier language and confession, what follows is quite explicitly a rejection of the previous “real presence” language of the 10 and 13 Articles: “Forasmuch as the truth of man’s nature requireth, that the body of one and selfsame man cannot be at one time in diverse places, but must needs be in one certain place; therefore the body of Christ cannot be present at one time in many and diverse places. And because, as Holy Scripture doth teach, Christ was taken up into heaven, and there shall continue until the end of the world, a faithful man ought not either to believe or openly to confess the real and bodily presence, as they term it, of Christ’s flesh and blood, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.”[20]

This quite explicit rejection of the bodily (corporeal) presence of Christ in the Sacrament was removed in both The Thirty-Eight and Thirty-Nine Articles, yet its sentiment remains in the Book of Common Prayer today.[21] Added to both The Thirty-Eight and Thirty-Nine Articles though, in absence of the deleted section quoted above, is the confession that “[t]he body of Christ is given, taken and eaten in the supper only after an heavenly manner; and the mean whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the supper is faith.”[22] Here we once again see a distancing from the earlier strong affirmation of the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist and an embracing of more Reformed, or Zwinglian, conception of Eucharistic presence compared to a Lutheran one.

One final aspect of the development of Eucharistic presence remains in the doctrinal development of the Church of England. It was quite explicitly stated in The Thirteen Articles that “…under these forms they are truly and really offered and administered to those who receive the sacrament, whether they be good or evil.” In other words, the belief of the communicant does not affect the presence of Christ in the Sacrament. But in The Thirty-Nine Articles, the following was added as Article 29, “Of the Wicked which do not eat the Body of Christ in the Use of the Lord’s Supper”: “The wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth, as St Augustine saith, the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ, but rather to their condemnation do eat and drink the sign or sacrament of so great a thing.”[23] While such a teaching does not find explicit treatment in the Augsburg Confession, later Lutheranism would reject it in the Formula of Concord: “We believe, teach, and confess that not only the genuine believers and those who are worthy but also the unworthy and the unbelievers receive the true body and blood of Christ; but if they are not converted and do not repent, they receive them not to life and salvation but to their judgment and condemnation.”[24] And so we see, contrary to the evidence displayed in regards to the articles of justification/good works, the article on Eucharistic presence represents a divergence in earlier agreements between the Lutherans/The Augsburg Confession and the documentary developments of The Church of England.

Overall, we have seen that either in official discussion (in 1535-36 in Wittenberg) or in documentary influence, the Church of England was heavily influenced in its reformation by the German Reformation. While some of this influence waned over time, as in the teaching on the Eucharist, some it remained and actually became more explicit, as in the doctrines of justification and good works. Other articles of faith deserve the same analysis as offered here (ecclesial authority, cult of the saints, images, etc.), and while this essay has been limited in scope it is the hope that it has at least displayed that further analysis is necessary and would bear fruit today in discussions between Lutherans and Anglicans.


[1] The Augsburg Confession, Article IV

[2] Documents of the English Reformation, ed by Gerald Bray, (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co Ltd: 1994), 170.

[3] Documents, 170.

[4] Documents, 170.

[5] The Augsburg Confession, Article XX.1

[6] The Augsburg Confession, Article XX.9

[7] The Augsburg Confession, Article XX.27

[8] Documents, 162.

[9] Documents, 291.

[10] Documents, 292.

[11] The Augsburg Confession, Article XX.10

[12] Documents, 291.

[13] Documents, 291-2.

[14] The Augsburg Confession, Article XX.29

[15] The Augsburg Confession, Article X

[16] Martin Luther, The Small Catechism, VI.2

[17] Documents, 137.

[18] Documents, 169.

[19] Documents, 192.

[20] Documents, 301-02.

[21] The Book of Common Prayer, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 262. “…and the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here; it being against the truth of Christ’s natural Body to be at one time in more places then one.”

[22] Documents, 302.

[23] Documents, 302-03.

[24] The Formula of Concord, VII.7

A Lutheran Influence (Part 2)

Go to Part 1

II. A documentary development of The Church of England

Contrary to what one might assume, given the isolation of the British Isles from the mainland continent of Europe, England was not isolated from the Continental Reformations. Also, the English Reformation was not simply a program of Royal Supremacy. Instead, the initiation and advance of Reformation ideas and convictions in England did not begin with, nor completely depend upon, royal actions.[1] Instead, the roots and groundwork were already in existence in England for the fostering of Reformation ideals and principles.

Hugh Latimer
Hugh Latimer

Possibly as a result of Lollard influence, there was an anticlerical flavour to the religious situation of England when the Reformation principles of the continent made their way across the channel. The clergy were already being accused of both economic and sexual aggrandizement.[2] In 1532, Hugh Latimer gained notoriety for preaching against veneration, adornment and lighting of images, the invocation of saints, and the doctrine of purgatory. In response, the prior of the Dominicans in Bristol was mobilized against Latimer, but he discovered that Latimer was more against the abuse of things than the things themselves.[3] If these instances of existing Reformation principles are at all indicative for the whole of the country, then England presented fertile ground for the planting of Lutheran seeds. This being the case, the writings of Martin Luther were still officially anathematised on 12 May 1521 and Cardinal Wolsey led a burning of his books in London. Ironically enough, by this time the first group of English Lutherans were already meeting at the White Horse Inn in Cambridge.[4]

An ‘indirect’ Lutheran influence upon the prayer life of the English people proved to be an appointee of Thomas Cromwell, William Marshall.  In 1534 He issued an English “Primer” which was heavily dependent upon the works of Luther, omitting the Litany of the Saints and the Dirge, containing no other prayers to the dead and an attack on the legends of the saints. In the same vein as Latimer, Marshall would reissue the “Primer” within a year, claiming that he did not think that the Virgin Mary and the saints shouldn’t be prayed to, but instead he was wary of abuses of such things. Accordingly, he restored the Litany and the Dirge.[5] This same principle was also to be discovered in September 1535, in a book that encouraged the taking away of images. This was a translation of Martin Bucer’s “Das Einigerlei Bild”, which was a key Reformation text in Strasbourg. And yet, once again, the tract did not encourage the abolishing of images, but in typical Lutheran fashion, it allowed that images were appropriate as long as they were not worshipped.[6]

Another major Lutheran influence upon the Church of England was the English-Lutheran Robert Barnes. In 1528, during a period of persecution under Henry VIII, Barnes fled to Germany for safe haven. While there, Barnes published a book of Lutheran theology in English, which made its way across the channel and into English hands. According to Carter Lindberg, it is telling for the climate of the English Church at the time, that Thomas More (a staunch Catholic and traditionalist) found not the doctrine of justification by faith alone to be most objectionable in Barnes’ book, rather the article that challenged the authority of the pope caused More the greatest consternation.[7]

At the Convocation of Parliament in 1536, Latimer was chosen to give the opening sermon which amounted to a litany of ‘Catholic’ offences. On the fourth sitting day the conservatives lodged their objections and just over a fortnight later Convocation agreed to a set of Articles aimed to put an end to diversity of opinion over doctrine and practice. These Ten Articles were the first official doctrinal formulation of the Church of England. They are significant for affirming only three of the traditional seven sacraments (baptism, penance and the Eucharist) and for a formulation of the doctrine of justification by faith, but also for allowing the veneration of images, the cult of the saints and intercessions for the dead.[8]

In 1537, the Bishops Book was compiled under pressure to authoritatively explain the teaching of The Ten Articles for preaching and catechising. Behind the drafting of this document fierce battles raged between radical and traditionalist bishops. In some ways The Bishops Book proved to be less open to reforming interests than The Ten Articles, speaking of seven instead of three sacraments and reaffirming traditional teaching on purgatory and prayers for the dead, but on the other hand it was more radical then The Ten Articles with regards to images, forbidding any bowing down to or worshipping of them.[9] It has been suggested that statements in both The Ten Articles and The Bishops Book portray the influence of Cranmer and his desire to include some “Lutheran tonic” to the traditional distillation. Cranmer did much to model Henrician formularies of faith on the German confessions and articles, including most importantly The Augsburg Confession and The Wittenberg Articles.[10]

 Probably the most significant Lutheran influence upon the development of Reformation doctrine in the Church of England came as a result of Henry’s excommunication by the pope in 1538. This action forced Henry’s hand politically, already at odds with both France and Spain, to engage in serious discussions with the German princes of the Schmalkaldic League.[11] In order officially to join the League, the princes (mostly Lutheran), required authorial subscription to The Augsburg Confession. This proved to be too high a price for Henry. It has been said that he might have been willing to sign the confession on condition of his first being admitted into the League. While no ‘official’ unity was reached between England and the German princes, the actual process of discussion and The Augsburg Confession proved to be highly influential on the development of The Thirteen Articles (1538), and the later Forty-Two Articles (1553) and Thirty-Nine Articles (1571).[12]

 Eventually the foreign threats of the French and Spanish died down and, as the negotiations with the Schmalkaldic drug on, Henry decided that it was time to focus on religious uniformity within his own borders. In an effort to stamp out non-conformity he issued the Act of The Six Articles, which took steps towards reaffirming Roman Catholic dogma.[13] As a result of this move–the ceasing of officials talks with the Lutherans–English Lutherans like Barnes become dispensable and he was consequently burnt at the stake with two other English Lutherans.[14]

During this same period, another voice of Reformation principles was making itself heard through the printing press. Along with his biblical translations, William Tyndale also made available to England the works of Luther, most notably his prefaces to biblical books. Since Luther was still anathematised in England, Tyndale published his prefaces without using Luther’s name. Ironically, Thomas More never realized the ruse and Luther’s prefaces were even included in the royally approved Matthew’s Bible.[15]

As we move to the reign of Edward VI we find that the official persecution of Protestants ceased. Under the guidance of the King’s uncle and Regent, Edward Seymour, Protestant moves were made such as repealing most of the treason and heresy laws, including The Six Articles.[16] It was also during this time that Bucer, recently exiled from Strasbourg for his refusal to be part of the Augsburg Interim (1548), arrived in England at the behest of Archbishop Cranmer and was appointed Regis Professor at Cambridge in 1549. Bucer exerted his theological leanings–notably a way between the Lutherans and Zwinglians–on the Book of Common Prayer.[17]

It was during this same period, the reign of Edward, that Cranmer exercised his greatest influence upon the religious situation in England. Probably the most note worthy example of the Archbishop’s sway was The Book of Common Prayers tone-setting-endeavour to avoid the extremes in both doctrine and liturgy. The revision of 1552 alleviated the ambiguities which had given the Catholic/traditionalist party concessions in the 1549 edition–most notably, the Eucharist was now formulated in more Zwinglian, memorial terms.[18] Lindberg notes that “[l]ikewise in 1553, Cranmer produced a statement of faith for the English church that represented a compromise between the Lutheran and Calvinist theologies. These Forty-Two Articles (1553) were the foundation for the later Thirty-Nine Articles that defined the Church of England under Elizabeth I, and continue to influence the Anglican Church today.”[19]

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I

We now arrive at the reign of Elizabeth I (skipping over the reign of Mary due to the fact that no significant doctrinal statements were formulated or issued during her time in which neither The Augsburg Confession or the Lutherans had any (at least positive) influence). During her reign, Elizabeth stressed both theological and confessional unity in her dealings with the German princes. She is even said to have stated her acceptance The Augsburg Confession, although she never signed it herself.[20] Elizabeth’s main goal was moderation: a pursuit which she hoped would give England a certain amount of stability after the tumultuous and contradictory reigns of Edward and Mary. She strove to hold both Catholics and Protestants in check by fostering an “Anglican” settlement in both doctrine and practice. Lindberg makes the claim that under Elizabeth such things as Catholic vestments and liturgy were allowed in order to speak to the illiterate in an Anglican style of worship, while the literate Protestant group were able to hear Reformation principles in both sermons and prayers, all set within the framework of a Reformed theology motivated by The Thirty-Nine Articles.[21]

Significantly, in 1559 Parliament passed the ‘Act of Supremacy’ which recognized the monarch as head of the English of Church. Wisely and perceptively, discerning the tension caused by the title of “Head”, Elizabeth took the title “Supreme Governor” instead of “Supreme Head”. Four years later, at the second Parliament of 1563, the Act of Uniformity was reaffirmed and measures were passed to ensure its enforcement. It was at this time that The Forty-Two Articles were revised into The Thirty-Nine Articles. “The Articles were designed to accommodate the major evangelical theologies by denying transubstantiation on the one hand, while remaining open to the range of Lutheran and Calvinist interpretations.”[22] Under Elizabeth, the official liturgy and confession remained moderate. The aim of the endorsed liturgy and confession was to express reformed theology without alienating Catholics and traditionalists. Still, it can be discerned that both the Elizabethan liturgy and confession issue from a ‘third way’ associated with the likes of Bucer and Melanchthon.[23]

Go to Part 3


[1] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996), 309.

[2] Lindberg, 310-11.

[3] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992), 379-81.

[4] Lindberg, 311.

[5] Duffy, 381-82.

[6] Duffy, 386.

[7] Lindberg, 312.

[8] Duffy, 389-92.

[9] Duffy, 400-01.

[10] Peter Newman Brooks, Cranmer in Context, (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1989), 27; Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1996), 161.

[11] Lindberg, 312; W. Ian P. Hazlett, The Reformation in Britain and Ireland: An Introduction, (London & New York: T & T Clark International, 2003), 41-42..

[12] Lindberg, 313.

[13] Lindberg, 313.

[14] Lindberg, 313.

[15] Lindberg, 314-15.

[16] Lindberg, 321.

[17] Lindberg, 321.

[18] Lindberg, 322.

[19] Lindberg, 322.

[20] Lindberg, 325.

[21] Lindberg, 326.

[22] Lindberg, 327.

[23] Hazlett, 61.

Theological Fragments: Robert Jenson on satis est

“”It is sufficient” not only specifies the demands which Lutherans must make on others, it also limits the demands which Lutherans can allow to be made on themselves. Most bluntly stated: if other parties can affirm the gospel is preached acceptably among us, and the sacraments celebrated acceptably, they have no right to demand further uniformities as conditions of communion. Indeed, Lutherans have generally regarded any tendency by another party to make further demands for uniformity as prima facie evidence that the gospel is not being preached rightly in that quarter.”

Lutheranism, 177