The Ever-Present danger of Heresy
In our truth-lethargic age, the very idea that heresy exists is unpopular, and the task of unmasking it is viewed as a wholly negative enterprise.
We want to be known as tolerants, and exposing error, I'm afraid, ain't that.
Far better to preach "Jesus loves you!" than to defend the Resurrection or the Incarnation or the Trinity. Heresy-talk is oh so negative.
And of course, on the opposite side, we can don the mantle "prophet of doom." It's quite possible to be so consumed with error that preaching Gospel truth takes a back seat and we become clanging gongs.
But defending truth is one task of the church, who collectively are called "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Timothy 3:15).
To neglect the task of defending truth because the act as become unfashionable is to step away from the practise of the New Testament writers, who are constantly contending for the faith once delivered.
The question is how do we defend truth, how do we refute error?
The New Testament answer is twofold: (a) positively, by the continual preaching of truth (which scatters darkness) and (b) negatively, by the rebuttal of error.
One might add that there are two additional New Testament aspects to both of these facets: the truth proclaimed or defended should be done personally - by a living person, and locally, addressing the error of that moment or situation.
The defence of the truth then becomes immediate in time to the situation at hand and personal to the people who are actually exposed to the particular error.
Paul, for example, encourages Titus, positively to teach the truth "These, then, are the things you should teach." (Titus 2:15) and negatively, to personally rebuke and refute the false teachers on the island of Crete, "They must be silenced."
All teaching, whether positive or negative is done personally and addressed to the immediate situation to hand.
The Lutheran Book of Concord as well-meaning as it was, provides an excellent example of how not to refute error.
The Book of Concord?
In the aftermath of the Reformation a group of churches and their regions in Germany became Lutheran, not then by name, but by following Martin Luther.
Opposition from heretics of all sorts, not least the Roman Catholic Church, led to bitter and protracted truth battles from 1517ish onwards.
The Augsburg Confession of Faith (1530) was the "Lutherans" chosen way of consolidating the truths that had been recovered by their reformation. This is quite a short document of some 28 "Articles" (XXXVIII Articles if you wish to adopt the academic practice of obfuscation).
The creation of a new Creed - for that is what it was - is a very subtle departure from the apostolic means of defending truth: a new, but now man-made impersonal and global document, begins to be regarded as the final deposit of truth.
This subtle shift from Scripture to Confession, though understandable, is dangerous.
Before long, from 1530 onwards, many opponents along and tear old Augsburg to pieces! So a second tome becomes necessary - Apology of the Augsburg Confession, by Luther's successor Philip Melancthon. Three times the size of the original, this defence, attempts to defend everything that was defended in the hallowed first confession.
Of course, error doesn't go away and before long this apology is attacked and more documents are necessary.
Some of these opponents argue that the version of The Augsburg Confession the Lutherans are using isn't the original. So now a defence, only previously needed of Scripture, is required of the new holy document - authentication. (The proof of authenticity presented is that the version they use is identical to Latin and German copies that reside in archives).
None of the controversy is silenced - of course - and so eventually the big shots get together and come up with one big fat book, "The Book of Concord" (this book intended to bring final unity and concord to the Lutheran movement). This enormous Tome is made up of:
- Preface to the Book of Concord (1580) - why they had to put it together
- The Three Chief Symbols (The Apostles', Nicean and Athanasian Creeds)
- The Augsburg Confession
- The Apology of the Augsburg Confession
- The Smalcald Articles
- Treatise of the Power and Primacy of the Pope
- The Small catechism
- The Large Catechism
- Formula of Concord
In my version, some 600 pages! It remains the official doctrinal standard of the Luther Church today, some 500 years down the line.
This Tome now becomes the final authority for this group of churches, the new bible, the new word. The Preface makes it very clear that this book is final doctrine in the lands, territories, churches and schools of the signatories. The Preface is signed - and here is a big part of the problem - not only by a few pastors but by numerous politicians - dukes, electors, counts, palsgraves, mayors, barons (Daniel 3:2&3?) and the like.
The Dangers of all Man-made Documents
What's wrong with The Book of Concord?
The good part of the Tome is that those who wrote it were eager for truth to be preserved and error to be refuted. All power to them.
But as well as that plus there are a number of negatives...
1. Control under the disguise of conformity. In the first place, Concord reveals the dark underbelly of the Lutheran Reformation, which like all versions of 1500s Reformations (except for the Anabaptists) was about control. Since none of the Reformers except the Anabaptists (see my booklet here) separated from the state, all of them used the power of politicians to push through - and then defend - their version of the reformation. If you are a politician, you desire peace and to achieve that, you think, everyone in your geographical region must believe exactly the same things. (At least in those days).
The Book of Concord was an attempt by the politicians who signed the book to force unity on their regions.
Since the Gospel has no geographical regions, since there are no Christian cities, towns, villages or nations, only individual Christian churches dotted here and there, the idea of a book which every citizen must obey is flawed from the very start.
But the two even greater flaws, when compared to all of the New Testament defences of truth are:
2. The Concord is Impersonal. A big man-written book is no way to defend truth. Truth should be addressed and imparted to individuals by living letters. Paul always regarded the written as secondary to the personal (though boy are we glad he had to write letters!)
3. The Concord attempts to produce truth that is global and "eternal". The only place where fully trustworthy eternal and global truth resides is in the Scriptures. No man made document should ever - even unintentionally or unwittingly - take the place of Scripture. Errors come and errors go. The errors of one age are different from the errors of another. The fact that The Concord is still regarded as the formal compendium of the Lutheran churches is to be much regretted for many of the battles of the 1500s have long since gone, and new ones - unknown to Luther - have taken their place.
The New Testament way of defending truth against error is to preach the truth, for light scatters darkness, and to refute error line by line.
This must be done in person and addressed to the particular time-bound situation at hand.
The moment we develop timeless impersonal tomes, whether The Concord, The Institutes, Systematic Theology, or whatever we risk the possibility that they take the place of Scripture, that they substitute living word for dead letter and transient defence for global truth.
Books of theology are helpful as long as they remain humble time-bound fallible servants, rather than Doctrinal Masters.
Photo: Unsplash, Kostiantyn Li