FELSISA sees itself as a confessional Lutheran Church- a church bound to the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. What does that mean?
Professor Emeritus Dr Werner Klän of our partner church in Germany, the SELK, explores this question in this essay, which he has thankfully formulated for the FELSISA Newsletter. Dr Klän regularly gives guest lectures at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Pretoria.
“We believe, teach and confess” is the solemn formula with which the authors of the Formula of Concord, the latest confessional text of the Lutheran Reformation, dating from 1577, introduce their responses to the controversial questions. For them, the Christian confession is not only a recourse to texts of past times. It is always also a matter of giving witness to our faith in the here and now. This is how the Gospel comes to the fore, whose embodiment is Jesus Christ.
The confession is therefore not merely a retreat to documents of the past. Rather, it is carried out in reference to the Holy Scriptures. For the Lutheran Reformation, it is also the key to an adequate and common understanding of Holy Scriptures. Our church, therefore, binds itself to the confessional writings of the Lutheran Church because we are convinced that these documents bear sound and solid witness to the scriptural teaching.
Thus the confessional writings serve as a guide to the confessions we speak today. At the same time, they lay claim to conformity with the faith, teachings and confessions of the One, Holy, Christian Church, that is, of all orthodox Christianity. For the Church is born of the preaching of the Gospel and the administering of the sacraments: Through Holy Baptism, people are incorporated into Christendom. Through Holy Communion, they are strengthened in their faith. And by the promise of forgiveness in absolution, they are freed from everything that separates them from God.
The answers found in the Lutheran Reformation have great power of persuasion, even for people of our time and day. They do help people to witness their faith. This is exactly what the Lutheran Church is trying to do by adopting these confessional texts as a guideline for its proclamation. In every sermon, in catechetical instruction, in the training of the next generation of church leaders, proof of conformity with the defining foundations of the church is required.
For us Lutherans, agreement in the understanding of the gospel is the indispensable prerequisite for manifesting and establishing church fellowship. In principle, this approach is followed by the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches of the Eastern tradition in Christendom, even though they teach differently from the Lutheran Church.
For the understanding of our Lutheran mothers and fathers who set out on “lonely paths” in the 19th century – not least of all to South Africa – , it was clear: The church is found as a confessional entity in this world, and necessarily so. They had rediscovered the truth of the testimony of the Scriptures in the confessional statements of the Lutheran Reformation. Therefore, this truth must be determinative for worship as the source of Christian life and for the entire life of the church.
For church work at all levels, this means that decision-makers themselves must always reflect anew on God’s Word and apply it to our time and day. Thus the life and work of the Church is carried out through the thorough interpretation of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, the constant reflection on Scripture and the Confessions, and the application of Scripture and Confession today.
Now it cannot be otherwise than that a confessional church (such as FELSISA, LCSA, SELK and other partner churches in the International Lutheran Council) is always also a confessing church. In doing so, we have our contemporaries in mind. For the confessional documents collected in the Book of Concord on the basis of Sacred Scripture, provide answers to the fundamental questions of human life: “How can we stand before God,” and “How can we live before God.”
The answer of the Church, in particular the Lutheran church, is: We have fellowship with God. For Christ has united us with God in baptism. Therefore we are also joined to one another. We experience a living fellowship responsibly bound to one another. This fact finds expression in the unanimity of faith. It is expressed in clearly proclaiming what God has done and is doing for us: Christian identity is expressed among us – at least this is to be hoped for – in a highly personal and at the same time highly communal way.
We have always found ourselves in the community: The family we are born into, the church we are baptized into, the church someone has chosen to join – they all preceded us. Likewise, something always precedes our faith, our belonging to God: Christ grants us faith. He has incorporated us into his body, the Church – through holy baptism. And if we leave this fellowship, God has his means to reintegrate us: His forgiving Word, and Holy Communion, the meal of the communion of His Body and Blood.
The Church is a reality in this time and world. We recognize it by the external means by which God works faith and creates fellowship. God calls the Church into existence. God sustains it despite its faults and shortcomings. God cleanses it and completes it by remaining at work in it and within it. For this reason, the core values of Lutheran theology and the church cannot be given up: to give people a home in worship and to strengthen their spiritual life through instruction and pastoral care. For this purpose, God the Holy Spirit uses the means determined for this very purpose by God Himself. These are the proclamation of his Word, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the powerful promise of forgiveness. They are the focal points of Church life and Christian existence.
Through these means, people are called into the realm of divine benevolence and brought into it, or called back and brought back into this realm. Because we are human beings, we Christians too, are always dependent on living in salvific fellowship with God, these instruments of divine salvific action belong to the centre of the Church’s life.
Our church follows the principle that church fellowship – communion at the Lord’s Table in particular – requires agreement in faith, teaching and confession. However, we live in an ecclesial environment which is characterized by “religious pluralism,” even under the roof of the mainstream churches. There it appears that agreement in faith, doctrine and confession is no longer a prerequisite for the declaration and manifestation of church fellowship, as it was understood during the Lutheran Reformation. Nonetheless, our church must certainly also ask itself self-critically to what extent the unanimity in faith, doctrine and confession, which is a prerequisite of its commitment to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, corresponds to its own church reality.
Nowadays, the confessional Lutheran churches, together with other Christians and churches, face theological, not least ethical challenges in the horizon of “globalization.” We, therefore, seek binding fellowship with those Christians and churches which, on the basis of Holy Scripture and the confession of the Lutheran Reformation, shape Lutheran identity in an ecclesiastically binding way, for example in the International Lutheran Council. In addition, we may cooperate with other Christians and churches (selectively) where common biblical-Christian witness to the non-Christian or post- Christian world is possible and necessary.
Christians and Church, claimed by their Lord, have nothing to gloss over, nothing to cover up, nothing to hide: As for humankind, including the people of today, we speak plainly. We will do this – hopefully – without hesitation, without false consideration for the power, wealth, importance and influence of people. After all, it is not a question of the Church asserting itself. Rather, the Church is talking about the holy and just God who insists on justice and righteousness. At the same time, however, the Church, and the Lutheran Church, in particular, proclaims the Triune God who is lovingly close in Jesus Christ and calls for Christian freedom.