Editor’s Note: this article first appeared in the March 2019 edition of CORE Voice.
Lutheran CORE strives to be a voice and network for “confessing Lutherans.” But just what is a confessing Lutheran? People sometimes ask that question, and it deserves a good answer.
Historically, the terms “confessing” or “confessional” hearken back to the Lutheran confessions, or statements of doctrine, published in the Book of Concord in 1580. These documents, which include writings by Martin Luther, his friend and colleague, Phillip Melanchthon, and their successors, have served as touchstones of Lutheran orthodoxy across place and time.
Most if not every Lutheran pastor has vowed some kind of allegiance to this set of documents at ordination, and Lutheran laity will (hopefully) recognize one of its most beloved portions, Luther’s Small Catechism. At the book’s very start stands perhaps its second most famous document, the Augsburg Confession. This document was written by Melanchthon in 1530 to set forth the doctrine of the churches in Germany (the “evangelicals”) that had embraced Luther’s teachings. For this reason it carries the label of confession: it publicly states, or confesses, what the evangelical Germans believed.
This history brings us to a simple definition: confessing or confessional Lutherans are Lutherans who adhere to the teaching of the Book of Concord over against all doubts and doctrinal assaults. They stand in line with those earliest confessors of the Lutheran church and say, “Our churches teach thus and so.” Lutherans do disagree over the status of some of the writings in the Book of Concord (notably, the Formula of Concord), but all would agree that confessing or confessional describes a Lutheran’s fidelity to the contents of this book.
Digging a bit deeper, we may look at the term confess in light of Scripture. There we find that the term most frequently connected with “confess” is the Greek term homologeō: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). The term used here and in similar passages is a simple combination of two words, logeō (to say or speak) and homo (same). To confess is to “say the same thing.”
A beloved Lutheran theologian named Norman Nagel expressed this aspect of confession in his description of Lutheran worship from 1982:
Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from
what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise . . . .
Saying back to him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure.
(Lutheran Worship [St. Louis: CPH, 1982] page 6).
The Book of Concord and the churches that cherish it seek to confess or say the same thing that the Lord has said through His prophets and apostles, trusting that word to be “what is most true and sure.” We could therefore say that confessing Lutherans say the same thing as the Lutheran confessors before them because those confessors said the same thing as God says in His word.
One famous use of the term confessing comes from May 1934, when German Protestants, under the leadership of such men as Karl Barth and Martin Niemöller, adopted the Barmen Declaration, resisting the racist, Nazi-inspired “German Christian” movement. The Declaration condemned the attempt of National Socialism to change church doctrine and dictate church polity in support of Hitler’s “Aryan” ideology. Indeed, whenever the church resists changes to the doctrines of its Lord, it becomes a confessing church, saying what God has said over against all falsehood.
With churches across America struggling to know and believe what God has spoken, and with attempts at changing church doctrine multiplying daily, Lutheran CORE exists to support Lutherans engaged in this act of confession. As the Danish pastor and hymnwriter, Nicholas S. Grundtvig, teaches us to sing,
God’s Word is our great heritage and shall be ours forever; to spread its light from age to age shall be our chief endeavor. Through life it guides our way, in death it is our stay. Lord, grant while worlds endure, we keep its teachings pure throughout all generations.
May God grant us the strength to will and to do this good and loving work.