By Dr. C. Matthew Phillips
May I hear your confession? That may seem like an odd question. Most people who hear it would associate it with confessing sin to a pastor. However, Christ also calls believers to confess their faith to one another and the world (Matthew 10:32). St. Paul wrote that those who believe in Christ’s Word will also confess Him (Romans 10:8-11). Additionally, Lutherans learn the Apostles’ Creed as a confession of faith in their confirmation classes.
While a confession of faith may take place spontaneously in response to hearing God’s Word, Christians have often made formal confessions of their faith, such as a public recitation of the Nicene Creed during the divine service. It is often during times of persecution or the growth of false teachings that the church has found it necessary to formulate its creeds and confessions. Therefore, it’s easy to see how during the Reformation, formal, written confessions of the faith became necessary again.
In the sixteenth century, Lutherans wrote significant public confessions of their faith. The most famous one is the Augsburg Confession. When the Reformation took place in the 1520s, it divided the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation politically. This empire consisted of principalities and free imperial cities in central Europe. Martin Luther lived in Wittenberg, which was part of a principality known as Electoral Saxony, a territory that is in eastern Germany today.
Emperor Charles V gave Luther the opportunity to confess or deny his own teaching in 1521 at an imperial assembly known as the Diet of Worms. Here Luther defended his teaching as supported by God’s Word and refused to recant his previous writings critical of the papacy. You may recall that this is where his most well-known words were proclaimed, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Luther made this bold confession of his faith before powerful secular and church leaders. As a result of this action, Charles condemned Luther as a heretical outlaw and commanded all German princes to reject Luther and his teachings. However, Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise, protected Luther and Electoral Saxony began the process of church reform. This profound theological reform led to social and political transformation. For example, when most priests and former monks and nuns began to marry, monasticism ceased to be a significant institution. City councils and localities enacted reforms related to social welfare and education that more closely reflected Lutheran doctrine and practice. Additionally, Luther and others reformed the late medieval liturgy to bring the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake back to the center of Christian worship.
Wars against France and the Ottoman Turks forced Charles to delay any attempt to prosecute Luther and his political supporters throughout the 1520s. With Europe on the verge of invasion, Charles needed political allies more than condemned “heretics.” By 1526, Philip of Hesse and Albrecht, duke of Prussia, and some imperial cities had adopted and begun to implement the Lutheran Reformation. These leaders joined John the Steadfast of Saxony in a makeshift coalition of Lutheran rulers. John had become the Elector of Saxony after Frederick’s death in 1525. This Lutheran coalition staunchly resisted the Emperor’s plans to enforce his decree regarding Martin Luther at two imperial assemblies at Speyer in the late 1520s. By 1529, Charles and his brother, Ferdinand of Austria, had become increasingly frustrated with the religious and political divisions between Roman Catholic and Lutheran princes and cities in the empire. Therefore, Charles commanded the Lutheran princes and cities to present an explanation of their faith and practices to him at a new imperial assembly.
And so, John the Steadfast sought a theological statement from the Wittenberg theologians. In response to Elector John’s request, Dr. Luther and his colleagues wrote the Torgau Articles in March 1530. The Lutheran princes and theologians attended the imperial assembly at Augsburg in the spring and summer of 1530. Since Luther was an outlaw, he remained at Coburg Castle near the southern border of Electoral Saxony. This is where we see Philip Melanchthon lead the Lutheran theologians and become the primary author of the Augsburg Confession. He wrote and re-worked portions of the document until its official presentation to Charles on June 25, 1530. The original signers of this document included John the Steadfast and his son John Frederick (later called “the Magnanimous”), Philip of Hesse, George, margrave of Brandenburg, Duke Francis of Lüneburg, Wolfgang of Anhalt, and the leaders of Nuremberg and Reutlingen. These princes and civic magistrates risked their wealth, power, and very lives by signing this document. This Augsburg Confession contained 28 articles or statements concerning subjects related to the Christian faith. These included short explanations of the Lutheran teaching on the Triune God, original sin, Jesus Christ, justification by faith, pastors, sanctification, the church, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the absolution of sins, and the return of Christ. The Augsburg Confession soon became the basic foundation that defined what Lutherans believed, taught and confessed: the Good News that we are justified freely for Christ’s sake through faith alone, proclaimed loudly and clearly for all to hear. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to ask your pastor, if he hasn’t already, to conduct a study of the biblical foundation for the most significant articles of the Augsburg Confession. The more you know it, the more you can clearly communicate your Christ-focused confession to one another and the world.
Dr. C. Matthew Phillips is Associate Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. He teaches various courses related to world and European history. His research has focused on medieval monasticism and the Crusades. Additionally, he has scholarly interests in the Reformation and the writings and life of Martin Luther. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of Higher Things. His blog is entitled, Historia et Memoria, and can be found at http://wp.cune.edu/matthewphillips/.