A Protestant View of the Church and Tradition in the Augsburg Confession

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I recently wrote, “To ignore Tradition when interpreting Scripture is not to take a high view of the Bible; it is to take a high view of yourself.” Someone huffed, “If Martin Luther thought that way, we wouldn’t have had the Reformation!” I had to chuckle. Clearly, he hasn’t read much Luther.

The Protestant Myth

I frequently encounter this mindset. The Reformation is viewed as throwing off the Church and its Tradition in favor of Scripture alone. Sola scriptura is thought to mean “no creed but the Bible.” No one before Luther is trusted. The church fathers are viewed as proto-Roman Catholics. It’s as though there was no true Church before 1517.

Wherever this mindset comes from, it’s certainly not from the Protestant Reformers. To purport it as such is to misrepresent the Protestant tradition. In truth, the Reformers were not trying to get back to Scripture instead of Tradition; they were trying to recover the true Tradition: the Church’s consensus of faith and practice, from which Roman Catholicism had departed.

The Reformers were not trying to get back to Scripture instead of Tradition; they were trying to recover the true Tradition: the Church’s consensus of faith and practice, from which Roman Catholicism had departed.

This is evident in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, one of the most important documents of the Protestant Reformation and the primary Lutheran confession to this day. The preface states the intent that disagreements “may be harmonized and brought back to the one simple truth and Christian concord.” Nearly every article refers to the Creeds, “the testimonies of the Fathers” (especially Augustine and Ambrose), or “the example of the Church,” insisting that Protestants take their views “from Scripture and the Fathers,” while Rome had permitted new beliefs and practices to creep in and corrupt the Church.

Receiving the Church’s Faith

It’s significant that the first sentence of the first Article of the Augsburg Confession is an affirmation of the Nicene Creed: “Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without any doubting.” Article III goes on to draw its language from the Council of Chalcedon, and concludes with an affirmation of Christ’s return “according to the Apostles’ Creed.”

Protestants did not set aside Tradition to construct a doctrine of God and Christ from scratch; they received the Church’s faith as articulated in the ecumenical Creeds.

Protestants did not set aside Tradition to construct a doctrine of God and Christ from scratch; they received the Church’s faith as articulated in the ecumenical Creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian), since “they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture” (Articles of Religion, Article VIII; cf. Belgic Confession, Article 9). Protestants urged the thorough reception of the Creeds, which represent centuries of the Church’s theological reflection on Scripture. Unfortunately, contemporary Protestants have a dangerous habit of inventing statements of faith without reliance upon what Thomas Oden called “classic consensual ecumenical teaching.” As a result, these statements tend to be about as clear and deep as a mud puddle.

Upholding the True Tradition

Consider the central Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. When Article VI of the Augsburg Confession teaches that faith produces works, but that these works do not merit justification, it cites Scripture (Lk. 17:10); however, it is quick to note, “The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says: It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone.” Protestants did not view sola fide as a return to Scripture rather than Tradition, but as a return to the true Tradition: what the Church had always believed about salvation from Scripture.

Article XVIII likewise cites Scripture to defend the Protestant teaching on the will (1 Cor. 2:14), then turns to the fathers, citing a lengthy passage (over 150 words) from Augustine: “These things are said in as many words by Augustine.” When Augustine is cited again in Article XXVII, the Confession notes that “his authority is not lightly to be esteemed, although other men afterwards thought otherwise.” The Church and its fathers can err, and no single church father got everything right; however, the truth of Scripture is faithfully upheld and carefully articulated in the Tradition of the Church. To throw it off would be foolish, arrogant, and dishonoring to the Spirit whom Christ sent to guide his Church into all truth (Jn. 16:13).

The Church and its fathers can err, and no single church father got everything right; however, the truth of Scripture is faithfully upheld and carefully articulated in the Tradition of the Church.

Article XX further explains that Protestant teachers were simply recovering the Church’s neglected teaching on faith: “lest any one should craftily say that a new interpretation of Paul has been devised by us, this entire matter is supported by the testimonies of the Fathers. For Augustine, in many volumes, defends grace and the righteousness of faith, over against the merits of works. And Ambrose, in his De Vocatione Gentium, and elsewhere, teaches to like effect.” The Article goes on to cite Augustine and Ambrose each a second time. The Reformers cited the Fathers freely, frequently, and faithfully, as those embracing and continuing their Tradition. They saw themselves as returning to the Fathers’ consensual interpretation of Scripture, not as throwing off Tradition in favor of a bare biblicism.

The Reformers cited the Fathers freely, frequently, and faithfully, as those embracing and continuing their Tradition.

Article XXI concludes the main doctrinal section of the Confession with this statement: “This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers.” Protestants saw themselves as the true catholics: those who were upholding the faith delivered to the Church and passed on across the centuries (Jude 1:3), though obscured through the then-recent negligence and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.

Correcting Abuses

Articles XXII–XXVIII go on to address specific abuses which Protestants have corrected. This section is introduced with a clear statement that “our churches dissent in no article of the faith from the Church Catholic, but only omit some abuses which are new, and which have been erroneously accepted by the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of the Canons.” Contrary to the silly myth that the Church apostatized shortly after the apostles, the Reformers saw the deviations of the Roman Church as “the corruption of the times,” relatively “new” in the grand scheme of things. The answer to these corruptions, they believed, was to return to the Church’s consensus of faith and practice, not to reinvent the Church by erasing over a millenia of church history and building their doctrine and practice from the ground up.

Contrary to the silly myth that the Church apostatized shortly after the apostles, the Reformers saw the deviations of the Roman Church as “the corruption of the times,” relatively “new” in the grand scheme of things.

Article XXII is a clear example of this. The Roman Catholic Church had begun administering only the bread (i.e., not the wine) to the laity in the Lord’s Supper. The Confession appeals to Scripture (1 Cor. 11:27) to show that, in the time of the apostles, “the whole congregation did use both kinds,” then proceeds to show that the contemporary Roman practice was new and a departure from the true Tradition:

And this usage has long remained in the Church, nor is it known when, or by whose authority, it was changed; although Cardinal Cusanus mentions the time when it was approved. Cyprian in some places testifies that the blood was given to the people. The same is testified by Jerome, who says: The priests administer the Eucharist, and distribute the blood of Christ to the people. Indeed, Pope Gelasius commands that the Sacrament be not divided (dist. II., De Consecratione, cap. Comperimus). Only custom, not so ancient, has it otherwise. But it is evident that any custom introduced against the commandments of God is not to be allowed, as the Canons witness (dist. III., cap. Veritate, and the following chapters). But this custom has been received, not only against the Scripture, but also against the old Canons and the example of the Church.

Article XXIII takes the same approach to the marriage of priests, showing that Rome’s requirement for clergy to be celibate is a departure from “the ancient Church” and “the custom of the Church.” Cyprian is cited as an authority on this matter.

Article XXIV “Of the Mass” is heavy on Tradition. It condemns negligent bishops who “suffered many corruptions to creep into the Church,” then calls the Church back to the true Tradition, citing Ambrose, Chrysostom, “the Fathers before Gregory,” and “the words of the Nicene Canon.” The Article concludes, “as the Mass with us has the example of the Church, taken from the Scripture and the Fathers, we are confident that it cannot be disapproved.”

Article XXV likewise establishes the Protestant practice of confession on the testimony of “the ancient writers,” citing Chrysostom as an example.

Article XXVI on “The Distinction of Foods” confronts the Roman Catholic Church’s preoccupation with special feasts and fasts, so that “Christianity was thought to consist wholly in the observance of certain holy-days, rites, fasts, and vestures.” Protestant churches retained “very many” of these lower-case “t” traditions, but refused to teach them “as a service necessary to merit grace,” since this had obscured the “the doctrine of grace and of the righteousness of faith,” troubling many consciences. The Confession once again defends the Protestant practice by appealing to Scripture and Tradition (the church’s historic practice of and attitude towards such traditions): “Such liberty in human rites was not unknown to the Fathers.” Irenaeus and Pope Gregory are cited as examples. For the fourth time, Augustine is cited as an authority: “Augustine also forbids that men’s consciences should be burdened with such observances, and prudently advises Januarius that he must know that they are to be observed as things indifferent; for such are his words.”

Winds of reform were blowing long before Luther, and the Church always had its faithful voices.

In the final article, Article XXVIII on “Ecclesiastic Power,” the Confession rebukes those who have “confused the power of the Church and the power of the sword.” Notably, “These wrongs have long since been rebuked in the Church by learned and godly men.” The Protestant Reformers were not the first ones to confront corruption; winds of reform were blowing long before Luther, and the Church always had its faithful voices.

Nothing Against the Church Catholic

The Confession concludes, “Only those things have been recounted whereof we thought that it was necessary to speak, in order that it might be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic. For it is manifest that we have taken most diligent care that no new and ungodly doctrine should creep into our churches.”

True Protestants have a high view of the Church and Tradition. Those who ignore Tradition when interpreting Scripture do not take a high view of the Bible; they take a high view of themselves. For those who will listen, the Reformers are still calling us ad fontes, to the sources: first, to Scripture, as our primary source and final authority; then, to Tradition, as a faithful guide and derivative authority in matters of faith and practice.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.