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What Luther Says

Return To The Reformation: Lutherans And 'Confessional Subscription'

I realize the whole point of this blog is to do my best to communicate in layman's terms what it is that we Lutherans believe, teach, and confess.

However, I find that the closer we get to celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in just a few weeks, the more I'm drawn to deep dissertations on various subjects of our shared and cherished faith, and the kind that require you to read them slowly so that you can prayerfully and properly consider the content.

That's why I'm just going to apologize now for how "academic" this one might be today (then again, maybe not).

I also hate to seem like a Preus Family Fanboy, but they've written so much, so well that it's tough not to find myself reading yet another paper written by one Pastor Preus or another that helps to enlighten me and my understanding of the truth!

So, with that in mind, here's the latest which has to do with something we Lutherans refer to as "Confessional Subscription" and what we mean by that let alone why it's so important too.

Confessional Subscription Robert Preus, Ph.D., D. Theol. 
Excerpt: What is a Lutheran? What is the nature of subscription to the Lutheran Confessions? These two questions which are often considered together and which are as inseparably related as Siamese twins have become increasingly important in our day when Lutheranism is fighting for its identity and life. 
Today most of the Lutheran pastors and teachers throughout the world subscribe, at least pro forma, all the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran church: the ancient catholic creeds and the great Lutheran confessions of the 16th century, i.e. the Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Luther's two catechisms, the Smalcald Articles and the Formula of Concord. 
What does such subscription mean? Is such subscription any longer possible in our day of academic freedom and vaunted autonomy, ecumenism and dialogue? Many today think that subscription to any creed or confession is no longer viable and can represent only an impossible legalistic yoke upon an evangelical Christian or pastor. This is the conviction not only of Baptists and other traditionally non-credal denominations, but also of such renowned and conservative theologians as Karl Barth who holds that any human formulation of doctrine (as a creed or confession must be) is only a quest, an approximation, and therefore relative. 
Are such objections valid? Is the Lutheran church able to justify confessional subscription today? And is she able to explain and agree on precisely what is meant by such subscription? 
Today questions concerning the nature and spirit and extent of confessional subscription have become a vexing problem, an enigma or even an embarrassment to many Lutherans. 
There was no difficulty in answering such questions in 1530, however, when the great Magna Charta of the Lutheran Church, the Augsburg Confession, was presented by the Lutheran princes to Emperor Charles V, or again in 1580 when thousands of Lutheran pastors accepted and subscribed the Book of Concord. 
From the time of John Philip Spener in the late 17th century disagreement and debate among Lutherans concerning confessional subscription began to develop, and these problems centered largely in the extent of that subscription. 
The question was: ought one to subscribe the confessions quia (because) they agreed with Scripture, or only quatenus (in so far as) they agreed with Scripture. This latter quatenus mode of subscription meant that one subscribed the confessions with reservations; the act was therefore a contradiction in terms and no real subscription at all. As John Conrad Dannhauer said, one could subscribe the Koran in so far as it agreed with Scripture. 
Questions still arise regarding the extent of confessional subscription, and one occasionally hears theologians asking whether we are bound to the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary or to the judgment that the papacy is the Antichrist or to the number of sacraments listed in our symbols, etc. Often this sort of picayunish discussion and complaint is quite beside the point and represents only a subterfuge which serves to hide deeper misgivings concerning the theology of the confessions. 
Today, I am convinced, the confessional problem among Lutherans does not lie primarily in the extent of confessional subscription, or even in the theology of the confessions. After all, the Lutheran symbols can be used as a waxen nose (just like Scripture) and turned to suit the fancy of liberal theologians who find themselves in territorial churches or synods which still give some sort of formal status to the symbols. 
No, the problem facing us today, as Peter Brumer implies, is whether a person can be loyal to any confession or creed at all, whether theologians who have abandoned the authority of holy Scripture can have confessions any longer, whether modern latitudinarianism and indifferentism so rampant in practically all synods and church bodies today is at all compatible with confessionalism. 
In short, the issue is with the very nature of confessionalism, with the spirit of confessional subscription, with the very possibility of subscription at all.

This is most certainly true.

Those were only the opening paragraphs too!

The whole piece is only 10 pages long, but it packs quite a punch, and it's so relevant to the state of the Lutheran church today.

When it comes to the Book of Concord, we subscribe to everything it confesses since we believe that it is an accurate re-telling of what the Bible already says (and that it constantly points us back to God's Word).

Still, what do we mean by the use of the word "subscribe" though? What are Confessional Lutherans referring to when they mention "unconditional subscription" too? Why is that also a key distinguishing mark among Lutherans?

What Is An "Unconditional Subscription" To The Confessions? 
Confessional Lutheran pastors are required to "subscribe" unconditionally to the Lutheran Confessions because they are a pure exposition of the Word of God. This is the way our pastors, and every layman who confesses his belief in the Small Catechism, is able with great joy and without reservation or qualification to say what it is that he believes to be the truth of God's Word. 
Dr. C. F. W. Walther, the Missouri Synod's first President, explained the meaning of an "unconditional" confessional subscription in words as clear and poignant today as they were then: 
"An unconditional subscription is the solemn declaration which the individual who wants to serve the church makes under oath that he accepts the doctrinal content of our Lutheran Confessions, because he recognizes the fact that they are in full agreement with Scripture and do not militate against Scripture in any point, whether the point be of major or minor importance; and that he therefore heartily believes in this divine truth and is determined to preach this doctrine."

As you can see, this "unconditional subscription" is essentially an oath that all Lutheran pastors make. Believe it or not, even "called" Lutheran teachers at Lutheran Day Schools make this same oath too.

That's why it's incredibly sad when a majority within the Lutheran church has no idea that we even have Confessions just as was the case with me despite having been baptized, confirmed, and married in an LCMS church.

In those cases, you can't blame the sheep for not knowing what kind of sheep food is out there for them to feast upon. However, you can fault the sheep anytime they willingly refuse to eat such sheep food, especially when they should know that it's the best there is (and will ever be) on the market.

Our confession matters, because doctrine matters. In a sense, one's confession is what fuels one's defense against false teachers and their false doctrines.

Besides, what good is a confession of faith if you're not willing to stand upon that confession when push comes to shove? "Here I stand!" right?

Or, to be more specific, why call ourselves "Lutheran" and claim to subscribe unconditionally to a particular confession of faith when we're not willing to confront half-truths and lies in the name of God when they come walking into our Lutheran churches and schools with a smiling face?

The best way I can describe all of this is to point out that "unconditional subscription" does not mean a blind acceptance of what our church fathers had to say simply because they said it first, but it actually means unconditional surrender to God's Word, because (quia) the Lutheran Confessions merely expose the Bible's teaching in all its glory, and that's why we subscribe to them.

As another Lutheran layman once put it, "The Confessions are not themselves divinely inspired, but for almost 500 years they have been examined, weighed, measured, and found to be in full agreement with Holy Scripture. So, yes, we can take them authoritatively. We do not take the name 'Lutheran' because we follow Luther, but because we stand with Luther and the Lutheran Confessions as accurate expositions of God’s Word." Amen!

That's why we are also quick to point out that if someone were to ever come along and provide crystal clear evidence from Scripture that the Lutheran Confessions were doctrinally in error, then we Lutherans would be required to revise our Symbols...or we would be hypocrites and would have to cease being Lutherans.

It's as simple as that.

This "unconditional subscription" is not something for us to ignore or to be taking lightly either.

Remember your oath. Remember your vows. Remember your first love (Revelation 2:4) by honoring His doctrine in the way He intends.

In a Lutheran layman's terms, unconditional subscription should be viewed as nothing more than unconditional surrender to God's Word.

NOTE: Please understand that I'm not a called and ordained minister of God's Word and Sacraments. I'm a layman or just your average everyday Christian, Corporate Recruiter, Husband, Father, Friend who lives in the "City of Good Neighbors" here on the East Coast. As another Christian Blogger once wrote, "Please do not see this blog as me attempting to 'publicly teach' the faith, but view it as an informal Public Journal of sorts about my own experiences and journey, and if any of my notes here help you in any way at all, then I say, 'Praise the Lord!' but please do double check them against the Word of God and with your own Pastor." To be more specific, and relevant to the point I want to make with this disclaimer/note, please understand that I'm a relatively new convert to "Confessional Lutheranism" and one who recently escaped an American-Evangelical-Non-Denominational mindset a little more than 4 years ago now despite being a Christian my whole life. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way back into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is inconsistent with the Bible, our Confessions, and Lutheran doctrine in general (in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word, which our Confessions merely summarize and repeatedly point us back to over and over again) so that I can not only correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray (James 3:1), but repent of my sin and learn the whole truth myself. With that in mind, please be aware that you might also discover that some of the earlier/older pieces I wrote for this blog back in 2013 definitely fall into that "Old Evangelical Adam" category (and they don't have a disclaimer like this) since I was a "Lutheran-In-Name-Only" at the time and was completely oblivious to the fact that a Christian "Book of Concord" even existed (Small/Large Catechism? What's that!?!). This knowledge of the Lutheran basics was completely foreign to me even though I was baptized, confirmed, and married in an LCMS church! So, there are some entries that are a little "out there" so-to-speak since the subject matter was also heavily influenced by those old beliefs of mine. I know that now and I'm still learning. Anyway, I decided to leave those published posts up on this website and in cyberspace only because they are not blasphemous/heretical, because I now have this disclaimer, and only to demonstrate the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6). Most importantly, please know that any time I engage in commenting on and/or interpreting a specific portion of the holy Scriptures, it will always closely follow the verse-by-verse footnotes from my Lutheran Study Bible and/or include references to the Book of Concord unless otherwise noted. Typically, I will defer to what other Lutheran Pastors both past and present have already preached and taught about such passages since they are the called and ordained under-shepherds of our souls here on earth. Finally, I'm going to apologize ahead of time for the length of most entries (this disclaimer/note is a perfect example of what I mean! haha). I'm well aware that blogs should be short, sweet, and to the point, but I've never been one to follow the rules when it comes to writing. Besides, this website is more like a "Christian Dude's Diary" in the sense that everything I write about and share publicly isn't always what's "popular" or "#trending" at the time, but is instead all the things that I'm studying myself at the moment. For better or for worse, these posts tend to be much longer than most blog entries you'll find elsewhere only because I try to pack as much info as possible into a single piece so that I can refer to it again and again over time if I need to (and so that it can be a valuable resource for others -- if possible, a "One-Stop-Shop" of sorts). Thank you for stopping by and thank you in advance for your time, help, and understanding. Feel free to comment/email me at any time. Grace and peace to you and yours!

About JKR

Christian. Husband. Father. Friend.

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Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums and social media is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all arrive at the truth of God's Word (myself included), then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!

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