A new and genuinely novel interpretation of the fourteenth article of the Augsburg Confession began to circulate in the Lutheran internet this week, at least in the corners of it that we frequent.
Before we get into the new interpretation, the text in question, by way of reminder:
Of Ecclesiastical Order they teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.— Article XIV, “Of Ecclesiastical Order”
It may not be consciously espoused by anyone—then again, it may be—but the new interpretation, which seems to have been adduced from an ad hoc polemical position against “alt-right” Lutherans, is this:
Only ordained men may publicly opine about or make theological assertions in public.
Now, that only men, and not women, should be opining publicly about anything, really, is indisputable. As a rule, women should not be speaking publicly. If they are, it’s because something in the society in question is very wrong; examples in Scripture, such as Deborah, are not normative (cf. Isaiah 3:12ff).
However, that only ordained men should be speaking, asserting, and arguing about theology in public is a preposterous notion—ludicrous, really, especially coming from Lutherans. So, too, the idea that an ordained man may only be admonished, corrected, rebuked, etc., by another ordained man. This is sacerdotalism, pure and simple.
AC XIV is about who may teach in the church. It is not only about the divine service (see this fine translation of Stoeckhardt on the topic), but neither is it about every forum in society. If it were, it would follow that only pastors may speak publicly about anything, since literally all topics are ultimately theological.
Not so fast! St. Paul says to St. Timothy, “Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father.” ‘Elder’ means ‘presbyter.’ QED TKO, layman!
Well, you can think that. That’s a plausible reading. But even if it were the only allowable one (it’s not), it would not follow that only ordained men may publicly opine about or make theological assertions in public.
If and when pastors err in their theology, and do so persistently—especially if they do so as a group—they can and must be corrected. Yes, even by laymen, if necessary, as the citation from the Formula of Concord featured above attests. To be frank, this is about the most Lutheran contention imaginable.
We’ll go further. If and when pastors act shamefully in public and attempt to use their status as pastors to shield themselves from rebuke and criticism, they should be rebuked by other Christian men, firmly and decisively, in order that they may be brought to repentance. They should be, as they say, taken down a couple notches. After all, we are all called to repentance daily, are we not? “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Where that call to repentance is not heeded by erring pastors, there must be defrocking.
This is borne out in the writings of the Blessed Doctor, Martin Luther. The citations which follow are from his Church Postil. God grant that the pious reader would read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, for his own edification and that of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, the true Visible Church on earth.
Dr. Luther on the Duty of Christians to Judge Doctrine
27. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian Church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.
28. From this it follows that it is unsafe and false that the pope or a bishop wishes to have himself alone believed, and that he poses as a master; for they all err and are inclined to err. But their teaching should be subject to the congregation of believers. The congregation should decide and judge what they teach; their judgment should stand, in order that Mary may be found before Joseph, the church be preferred to the preachers. For it was not Joseph but Mary who retains the words in her heart, ponders them, gathers them together and compares them. The apostle also taught this in 1 Corinthians 14:29-30 when he says: “And let not the prophets speak by two or three, and let the others discern. But if a revelation be made to another sitting by, let the first keep silence.”~ Gospel Postil for Christmas Midnight
“Love suffereth long, and is kind.”
14. Now Paul begins to mention the nature of love, enabling us to perceive where real love and faith are to be found. A haughty teacher does not possess the virtues the apostle enumerates. Lacking these, however many gifts the haughty have received through the Gospel, they are devoid of love. First, love “suffereth long.” That is, it is patient; not sudden and swift to anger, not hasty to exercise revenge, impatience or blind rage. Rather it bears in patience with the wicked and the infirm until they yield. Haughty teachers can only judge, condemn and despise others, while justifying and exalting themselves.~ Epistle Postil for Quinquagesima
10. But what does the resurrection advantage us? It has already brought us this gain: our hearts are enlightened and filled with joy, and we have passed from the darkness of sin, error and fear into the clear light; the Christian is able to judge all sects, all doctrines of devils, that may arise on earth. Is it not a thing of unspeakable value, a precious gift, to be enlightened and taught of God to the extent of being able to judge correctly every doctrine and every kind of conduct exhibited in this world, and to show all men how to live—what to do and what to avoid? Well may we boast, then, of having here on earth also a Father—“the Father of lights”—from whom we receive blessings of such magnitude that man should willingly yield body and life for their attainment. What would I in my darkness not have given to be liberated from the very dread which prompted the celebration of masses and other abominations, yes, from the torture and anguish of conscience which left me no rest? Or to have instruction enabling me rightly to interpret a single psalm? I would, for such enlightenment, readily have crawled on the ground to the ends of the earth. Thank God, we now have the blessed treasure abundantly, the great and precious light, the gracious Word. What is the sum of all suffering and misfortune compared to this light?~ Epistle Postil for Cantate
51. In the first place, therefore, it is necessary that both preachers and hearers take heed to doctrine and have clear, unmistakable evidence that what they embrace is really the true Word of God revealed from heaven; the doctrine given to the holy and primitive fathers, prophets and apostles; the doctrine Christ himself confirmed and commanded to be taught. We are not permitted to employ the teaching dictated by any man’s pleasure or fancy. We may not adapt the Word to mere human knowledge and reason. We are not to trifle with the Scriptures, to juggle with the Word of God, as if it would admit of being explained to suit the people; of being twisted, distended and patched to effect peace and agreement among men. Otherwise, there would be no sure, permanent foundation whereon the conscience might rely.
52. Nor is it any more admissible for one who chances to have an office of greater influence than others, who is peculiarly holy, or who is of exalted spirit and intellect—even though he were an apostle—to presume upon his gifts and the office and take authority to teach according to his own inclinations, requiring his hearers to accept unquestioningly his word and rely upon it because what he teaches must be right. But thus the Pope in time past persuaded the world that because he occupied the seat of the apostles, the highest office, and assembled the councils, the latter could not err, and that therefore all men are obliged to believe and obey what they resolve and confirm.~ Epistle Postil for Exaudi
33. The second truth is that all Christians have the power and right to pass judgment upon any doctrine, and to turn from false preachers and bishops, refusing obedience to them. For you hear in this Gospel that Christ says of his sheep: “My sheep hear my voice, and a stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him, for they know not the voice of the stranger.” The reason Christians can rightly judge is because they apply the standard—as I mentioned—from this Word of Christ, that all who fail to teach Christ are thieves and murderers. These words have already passed the judgment and further knowledge than that of Christ is unnecessary. Christians, then, are in duty bound to follow this judgment, fleeing and avoiding all it contains, it matters not who, how wise or how many they are.~ Gospel Postil for Pentecost Tuesday
2. We must boldly consider the two kinds of doctrine, the true and good, and the false and erroneous, and that they will always accompany each other, for thus it has been from the beginning, and thus it will continue to the end of the world. Hence it will not do for us to creep along in silence, and resort to a safe and secure manner of life. The evil teachings of men and the doctrines of devils, and all our enemies oppose us without ceasing, and hence we dare not think that the issue is settled. We are not yet across the river. Therefore the Lord diligently warns us and says: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
3. We should well consider this passage, for Christ our Lord here commands and gives all Christians the power to be judges of all doctrine, and he gives them power to judge what is right and what is not right. It is now well on a thousand years that this passage has been perverted by false Christians, so that we have had no power to judge, but had to accept what the Pope and the councils determined, without any judgment of our own.
4. Now this Gospel here overthrows the very foundation of popery and of all councils, for we are not bound to keep what the Pope commands and men decree. Therefore I say again, firmly grasp what this Gospel teaches, for the authority has never been given either to the Pope or councils, or anyone else, to sit and determine what is faith. For Christ says: “Beware of false prophets.” Either the Gospel lies, or the Pope and the councils do. Christ says we have the right to judge all doctrines, and whatever is proposed for us to keep or to reject. Here the Lord does not speak to the Pope, but to all Christians. And as the doctrine is proclaimed to all: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do even so to them;” so likewise the words exclude no one: “Beware of false prophets.” From which it clearly follows that I may indeed judge of the doctrine.~ Gospel Postil for Trinity VIII
8. These words are blows and thrusts for the false apostles and preachers. Paul is mortal enemy to the blockheads who make great boast, pretending to what they do not possess and to what they cannot do; who boast of having the Spirit in great measure; who are ready to counsel and aid the whole world; who pride themselves on the ability to invent something new. It is to be a surpassingly precious and heavenly thing they are to spin out of their heads, as the dreams of pope and monks have been in time past. “We do not so,” says Paul. “We rely not upon ourselves or our wisdom and ability. We preach not what we have ourselves invented. But this is our boast and trust in Christ before God, that we have made of you a divine epistle; have written upon your hearts, not our thoughts, but the Word of God. We are not, however, glorifying our own power, but the works and the power of him who has called and equipped us for such an office; from whom proceeds all you have heard and believed.
9. It is a glory which every preacher may claim, to be able to say with full confidence of heart: “This trust have I toward God in Christ, that what I teach and preach is truly the Word of God.” Likewise, when he performs other official duties in the Church—baptizes a child, absolves and comforts a sinner—it must be done in the same firm conviction that such is the command of Christ.
10. He who would teach and exercise authority in the Church without this glory, “it is profitable for him,” as Christ says (Matthew 18:6), “that a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea.” For the devil’s lies he preaches, and death is what he effects. Our Papists, in time past, after much and long-continued teaching, after many inventions and works whereby they hoped to be saved, nevertheless always doubted in heart and mind whether or no they had pleased God. The teaching and works of all heretics and seditious spirits certainly do not bespeak for them trust in Christ; their own glory is the object of their teaching, and the homage and praise of the people is the goal of their desire. “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves.”
11. As said before, this is spoken in denunciation of the false spirits who believe that by reason of eminent equipment of special creation and election, they are called to come to the rescue of the people, expecting wonders from whatever they say and do.~ Epistle Postil for Trinity XII
4. Therefore, not without reason does Paul warn Christians to be always wise and circumspect— to keep the Word of God before them. Upon so doing depends their wisdom and understanding. Let each one make it a matter of personal concern, and especially should it be the general interest of the congregation. Where care is not observed to retain the Word in the Church, but there are admitted to the pulpit brawlers who set forth their own fraudulent doctrines, the Church is injured; the congregation will soon be as the preacher. Again, if the individual fails to regulate his daily life—the affairs of his calling—by the Word of God; if he forgets the Word and absorbs himself in accumulating wealth; if he is tangled with secular interests, he soon becomes a cold and indolent Christian, then an erring soul, and finally utterly disregards God’s will and his Word. It is for these reasons God so frequently commands us in the Scriptures continually to explain and apply his Word, to hear it willingly and practice it faithfully, and to meditate upon it day and night. He would have our lives emanate from the Word in honor to God and gratitude to him— from the Word wherein we daily look as in a mirror. But care and diligence are necessary to bring it to pass, and we should faithfully assist each other by instruction, advice, and in other ways.~ Epistle Postil for Trinity XX
39. [The foregoing] is a brief statement as to the first estate or government, both in its higher and its lower functions, to show how far we. are away from our true position and how full the world is everywhere of thievery. But these matters are worst of all, if one is to expound this passage (Render to God what is God’s) and speak of the God-thieves in the spiritual government of Christendom, in which I and the likes of me are. For as high as heaven is above the earth so dangerous and difficult is this office in comparison with secular or imperial positions which, indeed, are also dangerous where their occupants do not call upon God for help to discharge their duties properly and without injury to their subjects. But if unfaithful ministers or preachers get into their office they will be, not thieves of bread, meat or clothing, wherewith the body is nourished and with which jurists busy themselves, who teach nothing further than what ministers to the belly and try to check that class of stealing; but those who occupy the office that is to give the bread of eternal life to souls and, instead, cause them everlasting thirst, hunger and nakedness, taking away the word by which man is nourished from death to life, such are not simply belly-thieves, but thieves of God and of the heavenly kingdom.~ Gospel Postil for Trinity XXIII