The Lutheran Confessions on the Authority of the Councils


“The witness of the entire holy Christian church (even if we had nothing else) should be enough for us to maintain this doctrine and neither to listen to nor tolerate any sectarian objections. For it is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe anything contrary to the common witness, faith, and doctrine which the entire holy Christian church has maintained from the beginning until now— for more than 1500 years throughout all the world.” (Blessed Martin Luther, WA 30-III, 552)1

(Updated February 2017 in response to this great short piece by Fr. Larry Beane over at Gottesdienst Online: “Catholics and/or Protestants”)

Like it or not, accept it or not, the Book of Concord repeatedly avers that the canons of the ecumenical councils are authoritative. Mind you, it doesn’t suggest that the canons are absolutely authoritative in themselves, for only the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures are absolutely authoritative. Yet something can be well and truly authoritative without being absolutely authoritative. This notion of subsidiary authorities is one that we moderns have a hard time grasping for reasons which are beyond the scope of this short piece to tease out. Suffice it to say, however, it is one that we Lutherans had best study and understand if we are to read our Confessions aright and understand our confession aright, i.e., as one which is only ever made within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. For, as the Blessed Doctor reminds us, “it is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe anything contrary to the common witness, faith, and doctrine which the entire holy Christian church has maintained from the beginning until now.”

An affirmation of conciliar authority in general:

This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers. (CA Article XXI: Of the Worship of the Saints, 5)


[O]ur churches dissent in no article of the faith from the Church Catholic, but only omit some abuses which are new, and which have been erroneously accepted by the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of the Canons. (CA Article XXI; Appendix 1)


We do not find fault with the decrees of the Councils; …but we find fault with the laws which, since the ancient Synods, the Popes of Rome have framed contrary to the authority of the Synods. (Apol. XXIII, Of the Marriage of Priests, 24)


[T]he Pope does not want to be judged by the Church or by any one, and puts his own authority ahead of the decision of Councils and the entire Church. But to be unwilling to be judged by the Church or by any one is to make oneself God. Lastly, these errors so horrible, and this impiety, he defends with the greatest cruelty, and puts to death those dissenting… he wrests the decision from the Church, and does not permit ecclesiastical controversies [such matters of religion] to be judged according to the prescribed mode; yea he contends that he is above the Council, and can rescind the decrees of Councils, as the canons sometimes impudently speak. (Tractatus 40, 49)


[O]ur reformed churches are distinguished from the Papists and other repudiated and condemned sects and heresies, after the custom and usage of the early Church, whereby succeeding councils, Christian bishops and teachers appealed to the Nicene Creed, and confessed it [publicly declared that they embraced it]. (FC SD, Preface, 1)

Of the testimonies of the fathers:

In reference to original sin we therefore hold nothing differing either from Scripture or from the Church catholic, but cleanse from corruptions and restore to light most important declarations of Scripture and of the Fathers, that had been covered over by the sophistical controversies of modern theologians. For it is manifest from the subject itself that modern theologians have not noticed what the Fathers meant when they spake of defect, i.e., lack of original righteousness. (Apology II, Of Original Sin, 32)


It has been said above that Augustine defines original sin as concupiscence. If there be anything disadvantageous in this opinion, let them quarrel with Augustine. Besides Paul says, Rom. 7:23: “I had not known lust (concupiscence), except the Law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” Likewise: “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” These testimonies can be overthrown by no sophistry. All devils, all men cannot overthrow them. For they clearly call concupiscence sin, which, nevertheless, is not imputed to those who are in Christ, although by nature it is a matter worthy of death where it is not forgiven. Thus, beyond all controversy, the Fathers believe. For Augustine, in a long discussion, refutes the opinion of those who thought that concupiscence in man is not a fault, but an adiaphoron, as color of the body or ill health is said to be an adiaphoron, as to have a black or a white body is neither good nor evil. But if the adversaries will contend that the fomes— or evil inclination— is an adiaphoron, not only many passages of Scripture, but simply the entire Church and all the Fathers will contradict them. (Apology II, Of Original Sin, 38b-42a)


[O]ur preachers have diligently taught concerning these subjects, and have delivered nothing that is new, but have set forth Holy Scripture and the judgments of the holy Fathers. We think that this will satisfy His Imperial Majesty concerning the puerile and trivial sophistry with which the adversaries have perverted our article. For we know that we believe aright and in harmony with the Church catholic of Christ. But if the adversaries will renew this controversy, there will be no want among us of those who will reply and defend the truth. For in this case our adversaries, to a great extent, do not understand what they say. They often speak what is contradictory, and neither explain correctly and logically that which is essential to [i.e., that which is or is not properly of the essence of] original sin, nor what they call defects. But we have been unwilling at this place to examine their contests with any very great subtlety. We have thought it worth while only to recite, in customary and well-known words, the belief of the holy Fathers, which we also follow. (Apology II, Of Original Sin, 50b-51)


We have testimonies for this our belief, not only from the Scriptures, but also from the Fathers. For in opposition to the Pelagians, Augustine contends at great length that grace is not given because of our merits. And in De Natura et Gratia he says:


If natural ability, through the free will, suffice both for learning to know how one ought to live and for living aright, then Christ has died in vain, then the offense of the Cross is made void. Why may I not also here cry out? Yea, I will cry out, and, with Christian grief, will chide them: “Christ has become of no effect unto you whosoever of you are justified by the Law; ye are fallen from grace.” Gal. 5:4; cf. 2:21. For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. “For Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” Rom. 10:3-4.

(Apology IV, Of Justification, 29-30)


[T]he canonists have distorted the misunderstood Church ordinances, which were enacted by the Fathers for a far different purpose, namely, not that by these works we should seek after righteousness, but that, for the sake of mutual tranquillity among men, there might be a certain order in the Church. In this manner they also distorted the Sacraments, and most especially the Mass, through which they seek ex opere operato righteousness, grace, and salvation. (Apology V, Of Love and the Fulfilling of the Law, 167)


[The holy, catholic, Christian] Church confesses that eternal life is attained through mercy. For thus Augustine speaks On Grace and Free Will, when, indeed, he is speaking of the works of the saints wrought after justification: “God leads us to eternal life not by our merits, but according to His mercy.” And Confessions, Book IX: “Woe to the life of man, however much it may be worthy of praise, if it be judged with mercy removed.” And Cyprian in his treatise on the Lord’s Prayer: “Lest any one should flatter himself that he is innocent, and by exalting himself, should perish the more deeply, he is instructed and taught that he sins daily, in that he is bidden to entreat daily for his sins.” But the subject is well known, and has very many and very clear testimonies in Scripture, and in the Church Fathers, who all with one mouth declare that, even though we have good works, yet in these very works we need mercy. (Apology V, Of Love and the Fulfilling of the Law, 201-203a)


For we know that those things which we have said are in harmony with the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, with the holy Fathers, Ambrose, Augustine, and very many others, and with the whole Church of Christ, which certainly confesses that Christ is Propitiator and Justifier. (Apology V, Of Love and the Fulfilling of the Law, 268b)

Regarding the doctrine of the Two Natures in Christ:

Moreover, this communication or impartation has not occurred through an essential or natural infusion of the properties of the divine nature into the human, so that the humanity of Christ would have these by itself and apart from the divine essence, or as though the human nature in Christ had by this communication entirely laid aside its natural, essential properties and were now either transformed into divinity, or had, with such communicated properties, in and by itself become equal to the same, or that there should now be for both natures identical or, at any rate, equal natural, essential properties and operations. For these and similar erroneous doctrines were justly rejected and condemned in the ancient approved councils on the basis of Holy Scripture. Nullo enim modo vel facienda vel admittenda est aut conversio aut confusio aut exaequatio sive naturarum in Christo sive essentialium proprietatum. (FC SD VIII, Of The Person of Christ)


Thus, in the first place, concerning the unity of the person and the distinction of the two natures in Christ, and their essential properties, the Book of Concord writes just as the ancient pure Church, its fathers and councils, have spoken— namely, that there are not two persons, but one Christ, and in this person two distinct natures, the divine and the human nature, which are not separated nor intermingled or transformed the one into the other, but each nature has and retains its essential attributes, and in all eternity does not lay them aside; and that the essential attributes of the one nature, which are truly and properly ascribed to the entire person, never become attributes of the other natures. This is borne out by the following testimonies of the ancient pure councils…. (Catalogue of Testimonies, Preface)

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  1. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), pp. 334-335