The Augsburg Confession

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Last updated: November 21, 2019

On 31 October 1517, Dr. Martin Luther, professor of theology at the Saxon University of Wittenberg, nailed a paper of Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church. These theses attacked the practice of selling indulgences.

At the time Luther had no thought breaking away from the Church of Rome. However, this date is celebrated as the anniversary of the Reformation and signalled the beginning of the end of the medieval Church and the supremacy of the pope.Sixteenth century Germany proved to be fertile ground for the rapid spread of Luther’s teachings with political, social and economic factors all contributing to the conditions in which his ideas flourished. Ever since 962AD when Otto I revived the Holy Roman Empire, there had been an ongoing continuous contest for supremacy between popes and emperors, which eventually resulted in the papal side being victorious. However, it created bitter rivalry between Rome and the German empire, which increased during the 14th and 15th Centuries due to the development of German nationalism.

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As early as the 13th Century, the papacy started to become vulnerable to attack due to the greed, immorality and ignorance of many of its officials in all ranks of the hierarchy. The vast tax-free possessions of the Church, which consisted of about one-fifth to one-third of the lands of Europe, incited a huge amount of envy and resentment among the peasantry. During this time, people from all over Europe, not just in Germany, had come to resent the papal taxation and submission to the ecclesiastical officials of an increasingly foreign and distant papacy.Protests against the Catholic Church were not a new phenomenon. John Wycliffe, a 14th Century English reformer, boldly attacked the papacy itself, in particular attacking the sale of indulgences, pilgrimages, and the excessive adoration of the saints and the moral and intellectual standing of ordinary priests. Wycliffe translated the Bible into English and all his sermons were conducted in English, rather than Latin, so that everyone could understand them.

His teachings spread to Bohemia, where a powerful advocate called Jan Hus came across them.When Jan Hus was executed in 1415, the Hussite wars began, which were a violent expression of Bohemian nationalism, which was suppressed with great difficulty by the pope and Holy Roman Emperor, and were a precursor to those of Luther’s time. With the revival of classical learning, known as ‘Humanism’, which began in Italy in the 15th Century during the early Renaissance, came the replacement of ‘Scholasticism’ as the principle philosophy in Western Europe. Scholasticism’ was the school of philosophy taught by the academics in the Middle Ages and attempted to reconcile the philosophy of the ancient classical philosophers with medieval Christian theology. This deprived the Church leaders of having exclusive control over learning that they had previously held.

Laymen began studying ancient literature and scholars, such as Lorenzo Valla, an Italian humanist, who critically assessed the Bible and other documents that had formed the basis of the Church’s principles and traditions. It was not only in Italy that changes occurred.Humanists outside Italy, such as Desiderius Erasmus in the Netherlands, John Colet and Sir Thomas Moore in England, Johann Reuchlin in Germany and Jacques Lefi?? vre d’Etaples in France applied the new learning system to the evaluation of Church practices and the development of a more accurate knowledge of the Scriptures. Their studies laid down the basis on which Luther and John Calvin, among others, based their claims that the Bible, rather than the Church, should be the source of all religious authority.

In the early sixteenth century Germany was at the centre of the European economic system and was in a period of prosperity and growth.There was a rapid spread of lay education and the founding of new universities. However Germany was not a political unit, although , nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, it was divided into many separate states. It was in these conditions that Luther began his attack on the Church of Rome. In the ten years before 1517 Luther studied and out of his readings of St Paul, St Augustine and the Gospels he came to understand that the “righteousness of God ” did not mean God’s anger at sin but his willingness to make the sinner free of sin by the power of His love which would be given freely to a true believer.Luther thought that man was saved by faith alone and the words ” sola fide ” came to be the watchword of the Reformation. This meant that man could do nothing to ensure salvation-whether it were works of charity, prayer, fasting or mortification. This doctrine was not new but what was revolutionary about Luther’s views was that they concentrated on the total inability of man to save himself.

At first Luther had no quarrel with the Pope, the hierarchy or the Church and he was a reluctant revolutionary who never wished to abandon tradition, unless his reading of the scripture led him to do so.However Luther had been deeply shocked at what he saw when he visited Rome in 1510 and he was willing to lend his voice to the anticlericalism prevailing at the time in Germany. Luther denounced the concept of a special priesthood and blamed it for keeping God’s message from Christian people as he felt that priest’s only function was to inform man of his way to God by preaching the Word. Luther’s attack on indulgences came about as a result of his thoughts on salvation. Indulgences offered forgiveness of sin for the payment of a sum of money.By the late middle ages the practice of selling indulgences had grown and, although they were always proclaimed for a religious purpose such as a crusade or the building of a cathedral, they had become an important source of papal income.

Thus Luther attacked indulgences and he did question certain papal powers but his theses were written in a moderate tone and were intended to attract debate. Luther had published them in Latin but they were translated into German and spread abroad by the printing press.The Church reacted by trying to silence Luther. In January 1521, Luther was condemned by the Pope and declared a ‘heretic’. In May of that year, Luther was summoned to the ‘Diet of Worms’ ( ‘Diet’ meaning ‘general assembly’), where he was supposed to retract his teaching.

Luther refused and the Emperor declared him an outlaw. For almost a year he remained in hiding, protected by some of the German princes, writing pamphlets explaining his principles and translating the New Testament into German.Although his writings were prohibited by imperial edict, they were openly sold and the invention of the printing press allowed Luther’s ideas and works to flourish and spread rapidly throughout Europe and the Holy Roman Empire. Early in 1530, Emperor Charles V went to Augsburg where he wished to secure unity and prepare a force against the Turks who were advancing dangerously close to the Holy Roman Empire. He hoped that Germany would see that their country was in danger and, therefore, they would be willing to help fight against the enemy.The Lutherans thought of establishing the foundations for the debate by sending some articles which Luther had written in order to clarify where they stood.

However, Charles waved them aside and began proceedings at the ‘Diet of Augsburg’, requesting a new statement showing the Protestant’s position in order for the debate, which he hoped would lead to reconciliation, could begin. The resulting document was the famous ‘Augsburg Confession’, which is the central document of the Lutheran Reformation, which was a reaction against the Roman Catholic Church.The word ‘Confession’ here means ‘a statement of faith’. The main body of the Confession was written by Philipp Melanchthon who led the Lutheran theologians at the Diet; Luther was still an outlaw and, therefore, was unable to attend. Melanchthlon was sure that a compromise could be reached with Rome and therefore the Confession was intended to be a conciliatory document.

Luther felt that Rome would not change its stance and he told Melanchthon: ‘Agreement on doctrine is plainly impossible, unless the pope will abolish his popedom’.The papal representative, Cardinal Campeggio, worked tirelessly to prevent the Emperor from siding with the Lutherans, with the aid of the French diplomats. The Emperor saw hope in the mildness of the confession and commanded the Catholic theologians to produce a reply (Confutatio). However, in this document, instead of looking at the points of agreement, they decided to point out all the differences between the Catholic and Lutheran faiths. There now follows a summary of some of the 28 articles in the Augsburg Confession which sets out the main points of Lutheran beliefs.

Article number II gives brief explanation of what Lutherans thought of the Catholic belief on original sin. Catholics believe that man is born with ‘original sin’ and can only be lifted through being Baptised. For Lutherans, Baptism is necessary for spiritual regeneration. Article IV, which is the doctrine of ‘Justification by Faith’. This was one of the primary differences between Lutheran and Roman Catholic belief at that time. For Lutherans, ‘Justification by Faith’ was the only path to follow, as they believed that only through belief in Jesus could they be redeemed, rather than through ‘merit’ or ‘good works’, which is the Catholic view.Article VI is a statement saying that works are good but they have no merit before God in Heaven, due to the Lutheran belief that it was through faith alone that one would find salvation. Indeed, there is a passage in Luke17: 10 which supports this, when Christ himself says: ‘When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants’.

Article X discusses the Lutherans believe that the body and blood of Christ is present when they take the Eucharist, but they reject the Catholic idea of ‘transubstantiation’, whereby the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ.Article XI deliberates the Lutheran view on the practice of confession. They support the practice of confession itself but don’t accept it to be a sacrament. It is also mentioned that not all sins are able to be confessed, as they believed this to be impossible due to the fact that no one is capable of understanding the errors that he or she has made in the past.

Article XIV states that one must be ‘called’ to become a minister. This means that no one is allowed to preach in a church unless he has been ‘called’ up to do so by a higher ranking official.Article XV calls for all festivals which are not stated in the Bible not be celebrated. Therefore, holy days instituted to bring forgiveness of sin are without use and against the teaching of the Gospel.

Article XVIII addresses the Catholics’ belief that man was born with original sin and is inclined towards doing sinful deeds. Therefore, they believe that there is a need for help from the Holy Spirit in order to please God and those who teach that man can keep to the commandments without the aid of the Holy Spirit are condemned. Article XIX is a statement on the inclination of evil and ‘ungodly’ people towards sin.For Lutherans, man is not born with sin, as God will forgive sins for the sake of Jesus Christ. However, Catholics believe that man is born with sin and, therefore, more likely to commit sin throughout his lifetime on Earth.

Finally, Article XX discusses the Lutheran view that good works are good but will not aid passage to salvation or position before God. This statement is the longest one in the entire Confession itself and it just shows that Lutherans were determined to get the point across to the Catholics that they were not forbidding the preaching of ‘good works’ to the public.The Confessions of Augsburg were very important because it set out the differences between the Catholic Church and the followers of Luther. With the advent of Lutheranism, religion gradually became less the domain of the highly privileged clergy and more a direct expression of the beliefs of the people. Lutheran religious services were no longer held in Latin so that everyone could understand them. Church revenues were confiscated and the money used for the relief of the poor, the establishment of schools and for the salaries of pastors. Church courts were replaced by civil courts.

However, religious intolerance continued and all the sects continued to persecute one another and between 1546 and 1555 a bitter civil war was waged. Peace was established at Augsburg which provided that each of the rulers of the German states could choose between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, which was by then the religion of about half of the population of Germany and it gained official recognition. The ancient concept of the religious unity of a single Christian community in Western Europe under the supreme authority of the pope was destroyed. Today it is widely believed, among Lutherans and Catholics, that if there had been a willingness to listen to what the other side was saying, there is a distinct possibility that the break away would not have been so severe. Some of the religious differences remain but religion does not play such an important role in modern society. The Augsburg Confession was a “revolutionary” document at the time but history has been full of such works which have transformed the course of history but they are always replaced by another one.

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