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Attempts to Alter the Augsburg Confession

J.E. Thoen

1930 Synod Convention Essay

The Augsburg Confession was delivered to the emperor at the diet of Augsburg on the 25th of June, 1530. It was delivered in two manuscripts, one in Latin and one in German. The emperor desired that the Latin copy should be read, but since the diet was held on German soil, the Elector John asked that the German copy be read. This was granted and Dr. Chr. Beyer, the Saxon chancellor, read the German copy. Both manuscripts were given to the emperor. He kept the Latin manuscript for himself and gave the German manuscript to the imperial chancellor, the elector and Archbishop Albrecht, to be preserved in the imperial archives at Mainz. These two manuscripts are the official documents and the true texts of the Augsburg Confession. Both these original manuscripts have been lost, probably destroyed by the Catholics. We need not, however, be in doubt concerning our present text. There is ample proof that it is in full accord with the original manuscripts. The emperor had, indeed, expressly forbidden to print the confession, but there were, as was natural and necessary, many other original copies. It is said that not less than 39 such have been found. Among these five German and four Latin copies contain the signatures of the princes. In spite of the emperor’s order that the confession should not be printed, several copies were printed by irresponsible parties during the session of the diet. Since these copies were full of errors, and since the Catholics more and more boldly asserted that the confession had been refuted from the Scriptures and the fathers by the Roman confutation, Melanchthon, who had written the original manuscripts, had a correct copy printed in 1530. This was issued in May, 1531, and has been regarded as the “Editio Princeps,” first edition. There is, therefore, ample evidence that our text is in full accord with the original manuscripts. As has been stated, Philip Melanchthon wrote the confession, and he is justly regarded as its author in so far as he arranged the subject matter, formulated or worded the statements and produced arguments in their defense. The doctrinal contents, however, are in full accord with Luther’s teachings, and it is a fact, that a large portion of the original documents from which the confession was compiled were from Luther’s pen. It is also a fact, that Luther’s opinion and consent was sought and obtained on all points of doctrine before their incorporation into the confession. Luther had a perfect right, therefore, to call it his confession. Melanchthon himself admits that he had followed Luther’s authority in every point.

Since we know that our text or reading of the confession is in full accord with the original manuscripts, we are also able to know what alterations have been attempted in later editions. It was a weakness and habit of Melanchthon to change and polish the language and argument of his own writings, whenever a new edition was issued, even when he did not intend to alter the sense or meaning of the original. He seems to have regarded the confession as a private production of his pen, even after it had been read before the diet and delivered to the emperor and thus had become a state document over which he had no right. When he supervised the printing of an edition he took the liberty to change the wording and make additions. The alterations he made in the earliest editions were not of such a nature that they seemed to compromise the truth or change the doctrine, and were permitted to stand by those who adhered strictly to the Lutheran doctrine. Whether these changes or alterations must be ascribed solely to his desire for change in diction or he already at this time had ulterior motives, we do not know. We do know, however, that he was ready to accommodate himself to conditions and circumstances, and that he ardently desired conciliation with the opponents.

On the 27th of June, 1530, two days after the reading of the confession before the diet, he wrote to Luther and declared that they hitherto had followed the authority of Luther in all points, and asked him how much could be yielded to the opponents. This gives room for the suspicion that he, even at this time, was willing to compromise for the sake of peace. Guided by the strong hand of Luther and his followers, Melanchthon hewed to the line, when writing the confession, but his personal inclination was to yield. Luther refused to yield, and declared that too much had been yielded already. He would have attacked the abuses more fully and in stronger terms than Melanchthon had used. Otherwise he was satisfied with the confession, and called it “a beautiful confession.”

Melanchthon’s attitude to the Scriptures was in reality different from Luther’s. A clear passage from Scripture was the end of all argument with Luther. He stood squarely and firmly on the Written Word, and no human sentiment or reason, let it seem ever so logical, could move him to depart in the least from the truth as it is revealed in Scripture. His firm faith in the sufficiency of the revealed word of God gave him an assurance and boldness which we find lacking in Melanchthon. Melanchthon’s habit of mind was different. He regarded clear passages of Scripture as the source from which all Christian doctrine must be drawn, but he was inclined to supplement and develop the truth by philosophical reasoning. In the stress of conflict, this caused him to waver in his position and at last led him into error. This, together with his ardent desire for peace and conciliation with the opponents, were perhaps the chief causes that led him to change expressions in doctrinal statements.

It is impossible in a brief paper to treat of all the changes and alterations which Melanchthon made in later editions of the Augsburg Confession. It will be sufficient for our purpose to take notice of only a few of the changes made in order to draw the lesson we need at this time. It is probable that Melanchthon at first merely intended to clarify and explain the doctrinal statements, but he must have been led to do this under pressure of conflict with the opponents. This in itself is a weakness, when the original statement of a doctrine is adequate and can readily be defended as being in full accord with Scripture, as was the case with the doctrine of the Lords Supper as set forth in the 10th article of the confession. As an instance of such alterations we may notice the change of expression in the 10th article concerning the real presence. The original statement was, “That the body and blood of Christ are truly present.” This he changed to, “That the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present.” It is probable that he merely intended to strengthen the statement, but in reality he does not. What is really present is substantially present, and nothing is gained by the added words. In view of later events one might suspect that he added these words because he felt that the whole statement would sound better in the ears of his Catholic opponents, who teach that the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ.

What Melanchthon’s intentions were in later years we do not know, but it is evident by the alterations he made that his unionistic tendencies led him to accommodate his statements to the doctrines of the opponents. This appears most clearly in the edition of 1540. In this edition the change made in the 10th article is such that it may permit the Reformed doctrine. We shall see this best by a brief examination of the Latin text. In the original it reads: “De coena Domini docent, quod corpus et sanguis Christi vere adsint, et distribuantur vescentibus in coena Domini: et improbant secus docentes.” (Concerning the Lord’s Supper they teach, that the body and blood of Christ are truly present and are distributed to those who eat in the Lord’s Supper: and they reject those who teach otherwise.) In the edition of 1540 we notice that this has been changed into: “De coena Domini docent, quod cum pane et vino vere exhibiantur corpus et sanguis Christi vescentibus in coena Domini.” (Concerning the Lord’s Supper they teach, that with the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ are truly given (tendered, exhibited) to those who eat in the Lord’s Supper.) Here we notice in the first place that he has added the words “With the bread and wine.” This is correct and does not change the doctrine, and may be regarded as an improvement. Next we notice that he has substituted the word “exhibiantur” (given, tendered, exhibited) for the words “adsint” (are present) and “distribuantur” (distributed). Here he has weakened the statement of the doctrine of the real presence, in such a way that it may be understood in different ways. It is evident that by using the word “exhibio” he has avoided the direct statement that the body and blood of Christ are present substantially. Adding to this the fact that he has omitted the rejection of the false doctrine, it is evident that he has left a door open for the Reformed view. The Reformed taught that the body and blood were present, but only in a spiritual sense, with the bread and wine as signs or symbols. It is not our business to judge of the motives any further than the facts in the case warrant, but history proves that by this change in the wording of the 10th article the Reformed were led to subscribe to it. It is said that Calvin himself subscribed to this statement.

In the 20th article, “Of Good Works,” he introduced the statement that “Good works are necessary to salvation.” Melanchthon explained that good works are necessary to salvation, because no one is saved without true faith, and faith is dead without works. He was severely attacked for this expression and did later omit the words “To salvation,” but the evil seed had been sowed, and the synergistic doctrines, which sprouted and grew out of this seed at the time, the Lutheran church has had to contend with to our day.

It was unionism and love of outward peace that led Melanchthon to compromise the truth and consciously or unconsciously attempt the destruction of the beautiful confession he had labored so diligently to formulate. Let us beware of the insidious influence of unionistic and synergistic tendencies of our day within the church, so that we may be found faithful defenders of the precious heritage of our fathers. May the history of Melanchthon be a warning to us!

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