The Reformation was a struggle over the essentials of the faith. First with Luther, and then with other Protestant traditions, the Reformers set biblical faith over against that of Roman Catholic teachings and the papal magisterium. Pointing to the Bible as the exclusive source of doctrine, Protestants nevertheless had to articulate their understanding of biblical teaching. In this sense, the Reformation confessions were a natural flowering of the Protestant commitment to the Bible.
Protestants did not invent the need for confessions. Over the centuries, the church has always confessed the faith in the midst of confusion or crisis. The role of a creed or confession was never to replace Scripture, but rather to sum up the church’s witness to the truth in Scripture over against error.
The most famous examples of this impulse are the historic creeds—such as the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds—written between the third and fifth centuries. These creeds sprang from the same need as later Protestant confessions—namely, the need to clarify what the church holds essential on doctrinal matters.
What is different about Protestant confessions, though, is the desire on the part of the Reformers for root-and-branch reform. The issues of the Reformation were not simply controversies over one doctrine—or one set of doctrines—but rested on the need to reform the church entirely. Some doctrines, such as the Trinity, were retained as biblical, while others, such as justification by faith alone, needed careful articulation. For the sake of the churches in their traditions, Protestant leaders strove to write down in everyday language the thinking behind the acceptance of doctrines such as justification by faith alone or the rejection of the papal magisterium.
So in this sense, Protestant confessions are the same as early creeds, except their depth of focus is more detailed. Like a creed, they do not replace Scripture, nor are they even set on par with Scripture. Instead, they are the articulation of what Protestants find in Scripture.
The first example of this trend in Protestantism is found during Luther’s early
Reformation. Having struggled for justification by faith alone from 1517 to
1519, and having been declared an outlaw and heretic at the Diet of Worms (1521), Luther worked immediately to write down the basics of his message in a set of confessional documents. Two were for the church and one was for the public defense of Luther’s message.
In the first two cases, Luther wrote the Large and Small Catechisms in 1529, the first for training adult disciples and clergy and the second for children or new converts. He also wrote an Exhortation to Confession that same year to justify the need for confession. Though the church rests on Scripture alone, Luther argued, the need for corporate confession is essential. These early catechisms also signal one of the defining characteristics of confessions: they are tools for discipleship, essential to the life of the church. The third confession was the famous Augsburg Confession (1530), drawn up by Luther and Philip Melanchthon, not in a spirit of corporate confession for the church, but in order for it to be laid before Emperor Charles V and the princes of Europe. It was an apologetic of the Lutheran message, combative at times in its tone, or at least in its implications. It clarifies what Lutherans actually believed over against the charges leveled against them by German Catholics.
The Lutheran catechisms and confessions, then, form a microcosm of the ways confessions were used in the Reformation era: one for church life, the other for public disputation against spurious claims about Protestant orthodoxy; one for every believer in the church, the other for its leaders to clarify what they hold to be orthodox teaching. (to be continued)
Dr. Ryan Reeves is assistant professor of historical theology and assistant dean of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, Fla.