By Graham Glover –
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…
On the 25th of June 1530, appearing before his Imperial Majesty, Charles V, Saxon princes, joined by other German leaders, presented their confession of faith to their emperor. This confession was given in an effort to seek unity among the Lutheran reformers and the Roman Church, who had been in sharp dispute for the better part of 9 years since Martin Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X and later refused to recant his teachings at the Diet of Worms. It has been 485 years since the Augsburg Confession was first read, but it still remains the ideal theological treatise for Catholics and Lutherans to use as they seek to end the tragedy of their division.
There may be another office that Lutherans should reconsider for Christian unity. We signers of Augsburg could certainly benefit from a more sincere commitment to the liturgical and ecclesial traditions of those who gathered before Charles V. But our brothers and sisters in the faith who remain loyal to the Bishop of Rome ought to seriously reconsider the Augsburg Confession. For there is no other confession of faith that has the ability for our two communions to find common theological ground. It truly is the ideal means for Christian unity, not just among Catholics and Lutherans, but among all those who confess Christ as Lord.
To try and revisit the past, offering alternatives to how history might have unfolded if certain events did or did not occur, may prove an interesting conversation piece but seldom does much for contemporary affairs. While I certainly think that the entire history of the Western Church would have been altered if Charles V and/or Popes Leo X and Clement VII (and later Pope Paul III) would have given careful consideration to the reforms offered by the Lutherans, I know wishing such things is a frivolous affair. But what if Pope Francis and the Roman Curia of 2015 reconsidered the Augsburg Confession? What if they, as well as those Lutherans who boldly confess their articles to be a right exposition of the Christian faith, considered this document without the 500 years of theological infighting and carnage that has gone on between us? Is this possible? Could such an endeavor occur? I think so. And I think the Augsburg Confession could be the theological prism that unites us.
What is it about the Augsburg Confession that is so compelling? For starters, unlike the other documents in the Book of Concord (with the exception of Luther’s Small Catechism) it is written with the purpose of unity. The Apology to the Augsburg Confession, The Smalcald Articles, The Power and Primacy of the Pope, The Large Catechism, and The Formula of Concord (both the Epitome and Solid Declaration) are all very polemical, against Roman Catholics, other Lutherans, and other Protestants. The Augsburg Confession however is not nearly as divisive. (This is not to say it is not critical of Rome; it clearly is. But it is done in a way that is more affirming, with its articles beginning by noting: “Our churches teach…”)
Additionally, the Augustana does what Rome and Protestants cannot do on their own; it offers a common theological language they can both embrace.
It is a theological treatise that does not seek to break wholesale from the past or from the tradition of the Church. It does not do what so many other radical reformers and their followers did in abandoning much of what the church catholic believed, confessed, and practiced for centuries prior to the Reformation. This document is clearly catholic/universal in nature. It is also a treatise that is biblically grounded, not simply to offer proof-texts to new and differing doctrinal stances, but to uphold Christian teachings that had long been part of the Church. Acknowledging the abuses that had crept into parts of the Church’s practice, the Augustana seeks first to reform (which I’ve argued multiple times before, Rome has done on many occasions since Trent). It seeks this reform with the affirmation of the Holy Scriptures, the Church Fathers, and Church tradition. It doesn’t seek to pit these three against one another. Rather, it seeks reform with the authority given to each of them. In short, the Augustana is scripturally sound, sacramentally grounded, ecclesiastically cognizant, deeply committed to the church catholic and above all, focused on uniting the warring factions within Christendom against a much more heinous force, Islam. And you wonder why I think The Augsburg Confession is ripe for reconsideration in 2015?!
If a reconsideration of The Augsburg Confession alone is not appealing to Pope Francis or my fellow Lutherans, then what about the alternative the signers of this document offered in The Preface: “Therefore, if the outcome should be that the differences between us and the other parties in this religious matter should not be settled with friendliness and charity, then here, before Your Imperial Majesty, we obediently offer, in addition to what we have already done, to appear and defend our cause in such a general, free Christian Council.” A council we all know that did not occur until years later, after much ill-will had developed…A council with BOTH of our communions that may yet prove beneficial to us today.