Some people call us theological diehards “conservatives.” That term is appropriate, since we do want to conserve something. But a better word, one that we increasingly use, is “confessionals.” This term throws the emphasis on what we want to conserve, namely, our specific confessions of faith.
Calvinists have the Three Forms of Unity. We Lutherans have The Book of Concord, a word that means unity, but it consists of no less than eleven documents. So many might seem a little much. But each confession has an important place in our theology.
The Book of Concord consists of the three Ecumenical Creeds (the Apostles’, the Nicene, the Athanasian), showing our unity with the historic church; the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, setting forth the original doctrines of the Reformation and how they are in continuity with the historic church; the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, showing our differences with Rome; Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, those brilliant vehicles of Christian education; and the Formula of Concord and its explanation, showing our differences with other Protestants.
It isn’t that we have to believe in the Bible and all of that other stuff. But when someone believes in the Bible, it is a fair question to ask, “OK, what do you believe the Bible says about God and Jesus and salvation and the sacraments and other things?” Answers to questions like that constitute a theology and give rise to confessions of faith.
To be a Lutheran, one must formally agree that the confessions of the Lutheran church are true expositions of God’s Word. Note that the authority, as such, inheres in Scripture. But it is then possible to confess what you believe the Scriptures teach. To be “confessional” means to hold to a set of those confessions and thus to adhere to a specific theology.
Most evangelical Christians today do not have their theology all worked out, as these traditions do. Even though they sometimes make a point of foreswearing “human creeds” and the like, they do typically have a confession of some kind, even when they pretend not to.
Confessionals, though, have their theology all worked out. Christians whose theology is more minimal and less thoroughly defined can be more flexible, but I am glad to have a long list of teachings — that I did not come up with myself — to guide my thinking and my spiritual life. Many highly specific issues that I have to deal with — for example, the relationship between Christianity and culture — are dealt with in my confessional heritage. I do not have to reinvent the wheel or rely on my own theological ingenuity. I can draw on the accumulated wisdom of my entire church body and experience a solidarity, a fellowship of conviction, and a historic continuity with my fellow members.
My wife and I recently moved from Wisconsin to Virginia, which meant we had to transfer our church membership. We found St. Athanasius Lutheran Church, a wonderful, small, and rigorously confessional congregation. The service in which we were received into membership drew on the baptism and confirmation liturgies. We renounced the Devil and all his works; we affirmed our belief in the Holy Trinity; we accepted the authority of the Bible; and we confessed that the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church is drawn from the Bible and is “faithful and true.”
After agreeing to hear the Word of God, receive the Lord’s Supper, and live according to the Word of God “in faith, word, and deed,” we were asked this: “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?”
We both answered, “I do, by the grace of God.” We promised to suffer death rather than depart from this confession! Taking that confirmation vow is a powerful experience. Especially since many people through the centuries have died rather than renounce these beliefs.
The Inquisition originally targeted those who held to the Reformation confessions. In Hitler’s Germany, those who opposed the liberal, Nazified state church called themselves “confessing” Christians, holding to the historic confessions rather than to the teachings of those theologians who rejected the Bible as being “Jewish,” even though this could mean the concentration camp and hanging. Stalin slaughtered the Lutheran pastors in Russia and exiled the laity to Siberia and to Muslim regions, though they taught their confessions from memory to their children and kept their faith alive in secret. Today in Africa, where there are more Lutherans than in America, confessional Christians are facing persecution and death at the hand of Muslims, but they continue
in their confession.
This is not just about Lutherans. Those twenty-three Korean Calvinists who were kidnapped by the Taliban last July were threatened with death unless they renounced their faith and converted to Islam. All of them confessed
their faith. Two of them were killed.
I cannot imagine having to die for my confession. But I promised to, if it should come to that. And there is no way, having made that vow, that I will depart from those doctrines for any lesser reason. Some might say that requiring such a vow is restrictive and inappropriate. But I treasure it. I guess that makes me a confessional.