An Evangelical Act
An Evangelical Act
Lutherans have always held that creeds and confessions are necessary for the well-being of the church. Just as Christ’s church and all Christians are called upon to confess their faith (Matt. 10:32; Rom. 10:9; 1 Peter 3:15; 1 John 4:2), so the church, if it is to continue to proclaim the pure Gospel in season and out of season, must for many reasons construct formal and permanent symbols and confessions and require pastors and teachers to subscribe these confessions. It is impossible for the church to be a nonconfessional church, just as impossible as to be a nonconfessing church. And so today and ever since the Reformation Lutheran churches over the world have required their pastors to subscribe the Lutheran Confessions.
What does this mean? With her confessions the church is speaking to the world, but also to God, who has spoken to her in His Word—speaking to Him in total commitment, speaking to Him by an unequivocal, unconditional response in the spirit of, “We believe, teach, and confess” (FC Ep, Rule and Norm, 1). This response is Scriptural, taken from Scripture itself. How often do we read in our Confessions that the teaching presented is “grounded in God’s Word”! And so the Confessions are no more than a kind of “comprehensive summary, rule, and norm,” grounded in the Word of God, “according to which all doctrines should be judged and the errors which intruded should be explained and decided in a Christian way” (FC Ep, Heading). This would be an unbelievably arrogant position to take, were it not for the fact that all the doctrine of our Confessions is diligently and faithfully drawn from Scripture.
And so when the Lutheran pastor subscribes the Lutheran Confessions (and the confirmand or layman confesses his belief in the Catechism [LC, Preface, 19]), this is a primary way in which he willingly and joyfully and without reservation or qualification confesses his faith and proclaims to the world what his belief and doctrine and confession really are. Dr. C. F. W. Walther, the father of the Missouri Synod, long ago explained the meaning of confessional subscription, and his words are as cogent today as when they were first written. [From Walther’s essay delivered at the Western District Convention, 1858.]
An unconditional subscription is the solemn declaration which the individual who wants to serve the church makes under oath (1) that he accepts the doctrinal content of our Symbolical Books, because he recognizes the fact that it is in full agreement with Scripture and does not militate against Scripture in any point, whether that point be of major or minor importance; (2) that he therefore heartily believes in this divine truth and is determined to preach this doctrine.… Whether the subject be dealt with expressly or only incidentally, an unconditional subscription refers to the whole content of the Symbols and does not allow the subscriber to make any mental reservation in any point. Nor will he exclude such doctrines as are discussed incidentally in support of other doctrines, because the fact that they are so stamps them as irrevocable articles of faith and demands their joyful acceptance by everyone who subscribes the Symbols.
This is precisely how the Confessions themselves understand subscription (FC Ep, Rule and Norm, 3, 5, 6; SD, Rule and Norm, 1, 2, 5).
Needless to say, confessional subscription in the nature of the case is binding and unconditional. A subscription with qualifications or reservations is a contradiction in terms and dishonest.
Today many Lutherans claim that such an unconditional subscription is legalistic. Sometimes they assert that such a position is pompous and not even honest.
We might respond: What can possibly be wrong about confessing our faith freely and taking our confession seriously? For it is the freest and most joyful act in the world for those of us who have searched these great confessional writings and found them to be Scriptural and evangelical to subscribe them. Of course, to force or bribe or wheedle a person into subscribing them would be an awful sin and a denial of what our Confessions are, namely symbols, standards around which Christians rally willingly and joyfully in all their Christian freedom.
From Robert D. Preus, Getting into the Theology of Concord: A Study of the Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977), 15–16. For more information, see Doctrine Is Life: Robert D. Preus Essays on Justification and the Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 195–212.