by Rev. Aaron Moldenhauer

This post is the first in a series of monthly studies in the Formula of Concord.

Historical Background to the Formula of Concord


The Lutheran churches in the Holy Roman Empire experienced great turmoil after Martin Luther’s death in 1546. There were two causes for this turmoil: political and theological. The political turmoil arose from the Smalcaldic Wars of 1546–1547. In these wars Emperor Charles V fought and defeated the Lutheran princes of the Smalcald League. The resulting political and religious settlement, the Augsburg Interim, called for Lutheran territories to revert to many Roman Catholic doctrines and practices.[1] Some Lutheran theologians and princes went along with the Interim. Other Lutherans condemned it violently and resisted it. In this way political turmoil led to theological turmoil among Lutherans.

The controversy over the Augsburg Interim was but one instance of the theological turmoil among Lutherans in the middle of the sixteenth century. Lutherans argued about topics such as good works, justification, and the law. For instance, some Lutheran theologians claimed that “good works are necessary for salvation.” Others responded that “good works are harmful to salvation.”[2] Each side condemned the other. Which position was correct? Or was there a way to understand both positions correctly? Who would decide? The answers to these questions (and many others) were unsettled for decades, as fierce theological battles raged within Lutheranism into the 1570’s.[3]

Around 1570 Lutheran theologians and princes began to work towards a resolution to the debates among Lutherans.[4] In 1577 the Formula of Concord was completed and subscribed by a majority of Lutherans in the Holy Roman Empire. This confessional document successfully brought agreement and peace (i.e., “concord”) among most German Lutheran churches.

Theological Method of the Formula

The authors of the Formula developed a strategy to bring unity and peace among Lutherans without compromising the truth. This goal led them to adopt an irenic but firm tone in the Formula. The strategy begins with careful and sympathetic listening to all sides of a debate to determine what is and is not being said. Once positions are understood, the Formula condemns incorrect theological positions. It does not, however, name names. The omission of names, besides operating with a principle of charity, allows the Formula to consider questions without the popularity or stigma of controversial names clouding the issue.

The structure of the articles in the Formula follows the pattern: define, confess, reject. In order to resolve each debated topic, the authors of the Formula first define the question at stake, articulating the “Status of the Controversy.” They understood the importance of asking the right question, and seemed to recognize that an answer detached from its question cannot be rightly understood.[5] After they framed the question of each debate, the authors then give “affirmative statements” that confess the truth. They conclude each article with “negative statements” listing and rejecting false positions.[6]

To see this method in action, read article IV in the Epitome.[7] Note how the article begins by defining two questions in the “Status of the Controversy,” one about good works and salvation, the other about the terms “necessary” and “free.” Having identified the question at stake, the Formula then confesses “affirmative statements.” Note how sympathetic listening leads to careful distinctions and definitions. The authors make the distinction that while good works follow faith, they are excluded from the article of justification. The authors define “necessary” in two senses, only one of which can be correctly said of good works. Finally, the article lists “negative statements” that are rejected. Here too the distinctions and definitions are careful and precise. No individuals are condemned. The other articles follow the same strategy of listening carefully, defining the question, confessing the truth, and rejecting errors. The Formula uses this strategy to bring peace and consensus among Lutherans.

Authority in the Formula

What authority is used as the standard to judge what the right question is, which statements are affirmed and which are rejected? The Formula of Concord addresses this question in its opening sections, the “Summary Content, Rule, and Norm” in the Epitome; the “Introduction” and “Comprehensive Summary, Foundation, Rule, and Norm” in the Solid Declaration.

In these introductory sections the Formula identifies Scripture as the only rule and norm according to which all teachings and teachers should be judged. At the same time, those who subscribe the Formula also bind themselves to secondary authorities, writings that witness to the pure doctrine found in Scripture. These include the ecumenical creeds and the Lutheran Confessions. What these confessions affirm is affirmed; what they reject is rejected.[8] Today Lutherans include the Formula of Concord among the secondary authorities that we confess. Our study of the Formula of Concord in the coming months is intended to lead you further into scripture by studying this witness to the pure doctrine found in scripture.

Study Questions

Read the “Summary Content, Rule, and Norm” in the Epitome, along with the “Introduction” and “Comprehensive Summary, Foundation, Rule, and Norm” in the Solid Declaration. Some questions for reflection:

  • Why was it important to resolve the controversies among Lutheran churches and theologians?
  • Why was it necessary to address these controversies? What made them matters of import rather than “mere misunderstandings or disputes about words”?[9]
  • Identify the writings listed as correct witnesses to Scripture. Why are these works cited as norms governed by Scripture?
  • The Formula lists contrary teachings, but does not name the teachers who hold them. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?
  • Are there contemporary questions that might be addressed using the method laid out in the Formula of Concord?

The Rev. Aaron Moldenhauer is associate pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Beecher, IL.

[1] The text of the Augsburg Interim, in a translation by Oliver K. Olson, appears in Robert Kolb and James A. Nestingen, eds., Sources and Contexts of the Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), 144–182.

[2] FC SD, 1, 3.

[3] For a survey of the Smalcaldic Wars and the theological controversies of the mid-sixteenth century, see the “Editor’s Introduction to the Formula of Concord” in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd ed., eds. Paul McCain et al. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 443–472. For a more in-depth study, see F. Bente, Historical Introductions to the Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1965).

[4] The primary theologians involved were Jakob Andreae, Martin Chemnitz, Nikolaus Selnecker, and David Chytraeus. For a study of these theologians and their contribution to the Formula, see Theodore Jungkuntz, Formulators of the Formula of Concord: Four Architects of Lutheran Unity (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977). For a concise treatment of the writing of the Formula, see Lewis W. Spitz, “Introduction: The Formula of Concord Then and Now” in Discord, Dialogue, and Concord: Studies in the Lutheran Reformation’s Formula of Concord, eds. Lewis W. Spitz and Wenzel Lohff (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 1–12, as well as the Editor’s Introduction in McCain, Concordia, 453–458. For a study of the practice of confession leading up to the Formula, see Robert Kolb, Confessing the Faith: Reformers Define the Church, 1530–1580 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1991).

[5] For this latter point I am indebted to John Behr, who makes it in a far different context in his book The Way to Nicaea (Crestwood, N.Y.; London: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 6–7.

[6] There are a few exceptions to this, particularly toward the end of the Formula. Article IX declares the descent into hell a mystery and opines that the question should not be debated. Article XI is preemptive, noting that there was no current debate among Lutherans on the question of election. Article XII is simply a rejection of errors outside Lutheranism. Throughout the Solid Declaration, various points are added to this structure in the articles.

[7] Or, if you are more ambitious, in the Solid Declaration. Here my intention is not to work out the details of the question on good works, but only to analyze the method used to address the question. The method and structure is clearly seen in the concise Epitome.

[8] On the role and importance of secondary authorities see Kolb, Confessing the Faith, 132–133. See also C. F. W. Walther, “Why Should Our Pastors, Teachers, and Professors Subscribe Unconditionally to the Symbolical Writings of Our Church?,” Concordia Theological Monthly 18:4 (April 1947): 241–253.

[9] FC SD Introduction, § 9.