The following is an example of an all too common conversation that arises when certain Christians encounter confessional subscription for the first time.
Lucy: Hey, Andy, I know you are studying at a Lutheran seminary. I was hoping you could explain to me what just occurred during this installation service for Pastor Forde.
Andy: (Starts to nod yes to give a reply, but is cut off.)
Lucy: During the service, the pastor said he confessed the Bible to be (she throws up her fingers for air quotes) “the inspired Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” But then he also pledged himself to the creeds and the Lutheran Confessions. Then he promised that everything he would do as a pastor would be (throws up her fingers for air quotes again) “in conformity with Holy Scripture and these Confessions.” This seems like a contradiction.
Andy: How so?
Lucy: It seems to me that the promise he made puts the Confessions on the same plain of authority as the Bible. Is this correct?
Andy: No. That isn’t correct. Before I answer your question, let me first share with you what the Confessions are, so that you know what it is he subscribed to believe to be in conformity with Scripture. The Lutheran Confessions are called The Book of Concord which contains the three ecumenical creeds of the Church, the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasius Creed, as well multiple documents written during the 16th century during the Reformation: Luther’s Small and Large Catechism, Philip Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession and Defense of the Augsburg Confession, Luther’s Smalcald Articles, Melanchthon’s Treatise on the Authority and Primacy of the Pope – in which he calls the office of the pope the office of the Anti-Christ – it’s awesome! You’ll love it Lucy – and the Formula of Concord, which was written by many authors.
I can give you more information on any of these writings, if you would like them, but to answer your question; what the pastor just subscribed to was that he unconditionally recognizes that these writings are a correct exposition of the Bible. In other words, The Book of Concord accurately represents the teachings of Scripture. It is not “the infallible rule of faith and practice.” Instead, the Confessions are normed by “the infallible rule of faith and practice” – the Bible.
Lucy: Do I understand you to be saying that these Confessions are true only insofar as they represent accurately what is in Scripture?
Andy: Some Lutherans might be open to accepting such a subscription, but my church body, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, expects our pastors to subscribe unconditionally to the Lutheran Confessions not insofar as they are a correct exposition of the Word, but because they are a correct exposition of the Word.
Lucy: To my way of thinking this still seems like splitting hairs. It appears as if the Confessions are being raised to the level of Scripture. Why is it necessary to have the Confessions? In my Church, we don’t believe in creeds or have confessions; we just believe in the Bible.
Andy: I understand how this can be a bit confusing to you, as I do understand how this might seem as if we are adding words to the Bible, since you are not familiar with confessions or their use. I ensure you that’s not what we are doing, and I might be able to help you understand how we are not doing this by pointing out that you just shared a creed of your church body.
Lucy: I didn’t share a creed. We only believe the Bible.
Andy: That’s your creed. (Pausing to let it sink in)
Lucy: …That’s not a creed. It’s an anti-creed.
Andy: A creed is simply a statement of belief. You believe that creeds are not necessary for a church body to have and confess, but that is a statement of belief, thus creedal. Essentially, everyone has creeds.
Lucy: So maybe what I’m asking and really wanting to know is, why isn’t the Bible enough? What task or function do the Confessions play that make them necessary, or really important?
Andy: Great questions. When we consider the Bible, it’s not that large of a book, but certainly there are many interpretations that emerge concerning it, wouldn’t you agree?
Lucy: Yes. I know that you Lutherans believe that baptism saves you, but I reject that idea entirely.
Andy: That’s an example of division in the Body of Christ. And from my experiences, when discussing this teaching, both sides of the debate end up using the same verses. When I point to verses that I believe demonstrate the promises of forgiveness of sins, new life, and salvation that God has given to us in baptism, Christians from your position typically say those verses are about spiritual baptism.
Lucy: That’s right. My church body would say such gifts are received in Spiritual Baptism when we receive the Holy Spirit and faith – or when we are born again.
Andy: Because of these differing interpretations and the different hermeneutics – rules of interpretation – that bring forth these contradictory teachings, confessions are necessary and helpful. They place a stake in the ground concerning what one understands to be the proper interpretation of Scripture. You and I both would agree that we what we believe is found in Scripture, but we believe different things are taught by Scripture. For instance, how would I know what you and your church body believes concerning the Bible, since all you believe is the Bible? Would I have to read the whole Bible? And then because of different hermeneutics, I still likely wouldn’t arrive at knowing what you believe when you say, “I just believe the Bible.”
Lucy: You’d go to our church website and you can find our “What We Believe” page.
Andy: And when I click on it, would the page simply show a picture of a Bible, or would it take me to the entire text of the Bible, since that’s “just what you believe?”
Lucy: (Pausing a moment in thought) Are you suggesting that our “What We Believe” page functions as our Confessions.
Andy: Yes, I am. And I think when you understand that, you’ll understand more fully the function of confessions. I’m sure you believe that your church’s “What We Believe” page is in submission to Scripture.
Lucy: I do.
Andy: And as such, that page and the beliefs found on it, are a helpful tool for you to share your faith with others. It’s a good summation of what you (throwing up air quotes with his fingers) “confess” to be true as a Christian – even though the Bible is (again, throwing up air quotes with his fingers) “the inspired Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”
Lucy: I’m glad we’re having this conversation. I’m understanding creeds and confessions in a brand new light.
Andy: Thanks for taking the time to understand our position and use of the Lutheran Confessions. We certainly don’t want anyone to think that we are adding to or taking away from Scripture with our use of creeds and confessions. I think it is also helpful to understand the origins of confessions. Many scholars consider 1 Corinthians 15 to contain an early church creed. Paul says that what he first received he passed on to the Corinthians as of first importance. As I said, creeds are useful for sharing and teaching the faith with others, because they formulate what is in Scripture in precise statements that Scripture doesn’t always do for us. The idea then is that Paul received this instruction when he became a believer and then he used that instruction to pass the faith on to others. It’s a very simple creed: “Christ died for sins, was buried, and raised on the third day according to Scripture,” and then a list of eyewitnesses to the resurrected Lord is given. If someone were to ask me what the Gospel is, I’d use that creedal statement that in this instance, interestingly, goes back to before Scripture was even written!
Lucy: Are there other reasons creeds and confessions are used, or other reasons they were formulated besides simply confessing and teaching?
Andy: I do think we take for granted much of the doctrines we know in the Church today. For instance, if I looked on your church’s website’s (throwing up air quotes) “creedal page,” I imagine that I would find statements about the Trinity – God being three persons, yet one God. That doctrine and the wording we use to describe the nature of God is not clearly defined or formulated in Scripture. We can see that all three persons are fully God in Scripture and we can see that Scripture is clear that there isn’t three Gods, so what do we do with that? Well… thankfully, the early Church handled such problems for us by formulating doctrinal statements on the Trinity – a word that is not in the Bible by the way. The Church was forced to do such work, because they recognized that teachings were emerging that were against the witness of Scripture. Because the saints that have gone before us have done such work formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, such as what is recorded in the Nicene Creed, we don’t have to and that creed can serve as a boundary marker for us on what is correct and incorrect concerning the person and nature of the Triune Lord.
Lucy: So what do you do if a new controversy or false teaching arises that isn’t addressed in the Confessions of the Lutheran Church?
Andy: I’m glad you asked. The Confessions can serve as a flexible guide that shifts to the needs of the times, since the Confessions don’t always address the concerns of the day. For instance, a couple of decades ago, the book series, Left Behind, sparked a lot of conversation concerning the return of Christ. The Lutheran Confessions don’t directly make statements on the Rapture or the Millennium found in Revelation chapter 20, yet they do provide guidance on what is allowed and not allowed to believe concerning such matters by the boundary markers they set concerning how we can interpret Scripture.
Lucy: It is interesting that you mention that example, because when that series was so popular, our church made an addition to our “What We Believe” page. Do you think your church body would ever add or update your Confessions to meet the needs of the day?
Andy: It is possible. We however have the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) that provides study documents, opinions and statements on theological issues that are not directly and specifically addressed by the Confessions in our current context. Their reports serve as guidance to the pastors and congregations in our church body, but pastors are not bound to subscribe to them as they are the Confessions.
Lucy: This is all very fascinating. Thank you for taking the time to explain the Book of Concord to me.
Andy: I’m glad you found my answers helpful. Let me send you a text message of an image I have saved that I think will serve as a good summary of what we’ve discussed that you can use as a tool to help explain this conversation to others in your church. I probably should have pulled this up at the start of our conversation. (Sends text message)
Lucy: (Opens message and sees the following image)