The Concordia, 425 years later
We Lutherans are four hundred twenty-five years old this year. That is to say, the Book of Concord, which contains our confessions of faith and our theology all worked out, is four hundred twenty-five years old. Born out of persecution, martyrdom, attacks from every side, and heresies that crashed and burned, the Book of Concord—consisting of confessions of faith from the time of the earliest Church, through the Reformation, and into the age when Protestants were going off the deep end—was compiled and r atified on June 25, 1580. And it still speaks directly to the issues, the controversies, and the spiritual needs of our own day.
To mark the occasion, Concordia Publishing House published a new edition in contemporary English called Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions—A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord. Yes, the scholarly editions of Tappert and, more recently, Robert Kolb will still be the resources consulted by scholars and theologians. But this version, with its abundant study helps and sumptuous illustrations, is designed especially for lay people, so that all Lutherans can draw on their rich spiritual heritage.
This edition is called Concordia, which is the Latin title for the book of confessions. It means “agreement” or “harmony,” referring to the “concord” that all Lutherans share when they confess these beliefs. This explains why nearly every institution of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the seminaries, the ten colleges, various societies, the publishing house, and more are called “Concordia.” Our Lutheran forebears named everything after our book of confessions because those confessions define our identity.
Concordia Publishing House was established specifically to publish “the Concordia,” among other things. But the Tappert and the Kolb editions are published by the ELCA publishers, and the version Concordia Publishing House had the rights to had gone out of print. This new version is based on the English translation Concordia Publishing House had published from the beginning—the work of William Dau and Gerhard Bente, still available in the three-language Triglotta edition (in the original Latin and German, as well as this English translation). But it was in sore need of updating, its paragraph-long sentences shortened and its vocabulary modernized.
I was asked to help with the project. I was assigned “The Smalcald Articles,” written by Martin Luther, and “The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope,” written by Melanchthon. I worked with the Triglotta, modernizing the English of Dau and Bente, while going back and forth to the original Latin and German to check my renditions.
English major and Ph.D that I am, I’ve done a lot of scholarship in my day, including literary editing. This project was one of the most fulfilling. Luther’s language—in all three languages—was passionate, eloquent, and sometimes humorous. His partner Melanchthon, the Renaissance man, wrote in a terse, logical style. In trying to render their confessions in today’s English, I tried to convey the meaning above all, but also something of their styles and the tone of their voices.
Immersing myself in these texts, I found myself plunged into those times. The Smalcald League of Lutheran princes would later battle the Holy Roman Emperor, bent on restoring Catholicism at the point of the sword. And he did.Through treachery, greed, and mayhem, the Smalcald League was defeated, Lutheranism had to go underground, and yet—through an amazing change of events in which the treacherous prince next betrayed the Emperor and defeated him in battle—the Reformation survived anyway.
Though they are by now very old, these confessions are just as relevant today, if not more so. Today people have the idea that Christianity is just something that goes on inside a person’s head, not mind-blowing truths about objective reality. Non-Christians believe this, and amazingly many Christians are agreeing with them.
An age of relativism is exactly the wrong time for Christians to throw out their doctrines. Today Christians, most of whom are trying to operate without a doctrinal foundation, are blown every which way. Many are falling into the old heresies, without even realizing what they are doing.
No other church body has anything like the six-hundred-page Lutheran Concordia. Catholics have a vast, amorphous, but-not-always-written down tradition. Calvinists have a handful of confessional do cuments , though their level of subscription varies. Other denominations have brief creedal statements that can fit on a few pages in the back of a hymnal. Others claim to have no creeds but the Bible, though they cannot articulate what they believe the Bible says. But we Lutherans have our theology thoroughly worked out, grounded in the inerrant truths of Scripture, and tested in the trials of history.
We Lutherans need to read it, make it our own, and make the same confession in our moment of history.