We’re getting closer and closer to the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. October 31st this year will mark the 500th anniversary of Luther posting the 95 Theses. The theses were meant to open an academic discussion on the prevailing Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. Though Luther does make many good points here, Luther’s thought in 1517 isn’t quite the same as his confession of faith in 1529 (when he published the Small Catechism). There are reasons why we pledge ourselves to the Small Catechism, not the Theses. Therefore, this year we’ve been studying another work, which Luther would claim as another clear confession of the faith he preached and taught, the Augsburg Confession.
This month we turn to another rather visible difference between Lutheranism and the Roman Catholic Church as it has existed for more than five centuries. Article XXI of the Augsburg Confession is titled, “Worship of the Saints,” and it deals with exactly that. Or, more clearly, how do we as saints on earth relate to the saints in heaven. What role do those who have preceded us in the faith play in our lives here? Even shorter, why don’t we pray to the saints?
Our churches teach that the history of saints may be set before us so that we may follow the example of their faith and good works, according to our calling. For example, the emperor may follow the example of David [2 Samuel] in making war to drive away the Turk from his country. For both are kings. But the Scriptures do not teach that we are to call on the saints or to ask the saints for help. Scripture sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Atoning Sacrifice, High Priest, and Intercessor [1 Timothy 2:5–6]. He is to be prayed to. He has promised that He will hear our prayer [John 14:13]. This is the worship that He approves above all other worship, that He be called upon in all afflictions. “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father” (1 John 2:1).
Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 44.
The AC first answers in a positive sense how we on earth should view the saints. “Our churches teach that the history of saints may be set before us so that we may follow the example of their faith and good works, according to our calling. For example, the emperor may follow the example of David in making war to drive away the Turk from his country. For both are kings.” The Confession says that we may teach about those who have gone before us as examples for us to follow. Notice how the saint chosen is from Scripture. A king, for example, could look to David for a model – since they’re both kings. In my case, as a pastor, I could look to Timothy, since we’re both pastors.
The Apology of the Augsburg Confession (a follow-up document also in the Book of Concord) expands this explanation. It says, “They [the Roman Catholic opponents] absolutely condemn Article XXI because we do not require the invocation of saints. On no other topic do they speak more smoothly or wordily.” (Ap XXI, par. 1) Therefore, it says, we approve honoring the saints in three ways. The first is simple thanksgiving to God. We give thanks to God for the mercy shown to them, and that He has given us such great teachers and examples. Second, we honor the saints by being strengthened in the faith through their example. “When we see Peter’s denial forgiven, we also are encouraged to believe all the more that grace truly superabounds over sin.” (Ap XXI, 5) Lastly, we honor the saints by imitating them, first their faith, and then according to our own callings.
However, Scripture nowhere teaches us to call to the saints in heaven or ask them for help. Neither does Scripture teach that the saints in heaven can hear us; nor, provided they can hear us, does Scripture promise they can help us. “Scripture sets before us the one Christ as the Mediator, Atoning Sacrifice, High Priest, and Intercessor. He is to be prayed to. He has promised that He will hear our prayer.” (AC XXI, 2-3) Jesus comforts us throughout Scripture that He desires our prayers. He alone promises to both hear and answer our prayers. Therefore, with this blessed assurance, we pray to God alone while giving Him the honor and thanks for those who’ve gone before us in the faith.
At this point, the first part of the Augsburg Confession concludes. Up through this article, the confessors explain, “There is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church universal, or from the Church of Rome, as known from its writers.” That means that the confessors sincerely (and correctly) believe that they have in no way departed from the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. Because of this, they say, “those who insist that our teachers are to be regarded as heretics are judging harshly.” (AC Summary Statement, 1) Keep in mind, heresy was punished by execution at this time.
Further, they write,
Even here, if there are some differences, the bishops should bear with us patiently because of the Confession we have just reviewed. Even the Church’s canon law is not so severe that it demands the same rites everywhere. Nor, for that matter, have the rites of all churches ever been the same. Although, in large part, the ancient rites are diligently observed among us. It is a false and hate-filled charge that our churches have abolished all the ceremonies instituted in ancient times. (Summary Statement, 2-4)
The confessors recognized that differences in practice between the Evangelicals and the Roman Catholics were becoming clear. But, they felt they were minimal, and that, for sake of the confession given above, they should be permitted. The only practices that were changed were those that had either become corrupt over time or had corrupt beginnings. Even then, they were only changed so that they would no longer be an obstacle to a clear confession of faith.
Here the first part of the Augsburg Confession ends and the second begins. The remaining articles of the AC detail these changes in the ceremonies of the church. These things include receiving both the Body and Blood in the Sacrament, the end of priestly celibacy and monastic vows, and a right understanding of human traditions in the Church. Next month we’ll begin looking at these articles, starting with Article XXII: Both Kinds in the Sacrament. For now, some closing words from the confessors:
Our churches do not dissent from any article of the faith held by the Church catholic. They only omit some of the newer abuses. They have been erroneously accepted through the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of canon law. Therefore, we pray that Your Imperial Majesty will graciously hear what has been changed and why the people are not compelled to observe those things that are abuses against their conscience. Your Imperial Majesty should not believe those who have tried to stir up hatred against us by spreading strange lies among the people. They have given rise to this controversy by stirring up the minds of good people. Now they are trying to increase the controversy using the same methods. Your Imperial Majesty will undoubtedly find that the form of doctrine and ceremonies among us are not as intolerable as these ungodly and ill-intentioned men claim. Besides, the truth cannot be gathered from common rumors or the attacks of enemies. It can easily be judged that if the churches observed ceremonies correctly, their dignity would be maintained and reverence and piety would increase among the people. (AC, A Review of the Various Abuses That Have Been Corrected)