Sources of Authority according to the Lutheran Confessions

Copyright 2011 Lutheran University Press. This essay will be published by Lutheran University Press in a book entitled Sources of Authority in the Church.

[1] A lot of our talks have been focusing on the issue of authority as power and process. I am going to focus on the issue of authority as truth, with power and process coming into play only in relation to the question of truth.

[2] Lutheranism as a distinct branch of the church catholic began with the realization that the church is full of liars, politicians, hucksters, unbelievers, and traitors. Luther and his companions were not the first to realize this as such. It has been the ongoing problem of the church and of Israel and of the whole fallen world. The fact that our Lord Jesus Christ even needed to declare that “all authority on heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18) is proof enough that sin, death, and the devil contend Christ’s authority. So Christians should be aware that if the topic of authority comes up at all, it is because there is already a crisis of authority at hand. The church is a two thousand-year-old crisis of authority. It is, first, a crisis for the fallen world that does not want to recognize the authority of Jesus Christ to judge and forgive sins and to create new life, preferring instead the authority of the powers and principalities. But second, the church is a crisis in itself, as the epicenter of the conflict between divine power and contra-divine power.

[3] Lutheranism was constituted by two basic reactions to the authority of Jesus Christ and the ensuing crisis of authority within the church. On the one hand, it found joy amidst the sixteenth-century mess at the (re)discovery of the faithful authority of the holy Scriptures in witnessing to the authority of Christ. The Scriptures are the only reliable source and norm of the church’s teaching and life, the authoritative content that tells us Who and what Christ, his Father, and their Spirit are all about. There is no other normative source: not tradition, not experience, not reason, and not science. Hence the Formula of Concord: “We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments alone.”1 The same conviction is found in the elca constitution: “This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.”2 Against all falsehoods, power struggles, and doubts, the Scriptures have the authority in this world to speak faithful words of and about God.

[4] On the other hand, and at the very same time, Lutheranism realized that the Scriptures can be ignored or distorted at anyone’s hands, not least of all bishops and other “authorities” invoking the church or Scriptures’ authority. Councils can err, Luther said — we might add today, so can conventions. I will use “bishop” as shorthand for ecclesiastical authorities here since that is the main human authority the Lutheran Confessions were dealing with. This difficulty — the distortion of Scripture — is intrinsic to the nature of the church itself. Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority; because they speak about him and indeed speak him, the Scriptures have authority deriving from Christ; but the chain of authority continues on, since Christ sent his apostles to be the ministers of reconciliation and draw sinners back to him. The ministers are given authority to bind and loose in his name, to baptize, and to preach the good news. But here is the difficulty: the ministers of reconciliation are themselves sinners, in varying states of reconciliation to Christ and of sanctification of their lives to his service. If there were ever evidence of God’s outrageous foolishness (along the lines of I Corinthians 1), it is His willing recruitment of sinners to work in His service. That this is an age-old controversy can be seen, for instance, in the Confessions’ reference to the Donatist heresy in discussing the efficacy of the sacraments. As Melanchthon says in the Apology, “When [ministers] offer the Word of Christ or the sacraments, they offer them in the stead and place of Christ. The words of Christ teach us this so that we are not offended by the unworthiness of ministers.”3 This is the extraordinary claim — not to mention the extraordinary difficulty — of the church: Christ offers himself through the word and sacrament ministered by sinful church authorities. The reality of spiritual authority in the hands of sinners is so alarming and so difficult to manage that no one across the ecumenical spectrum has a particularly impressive record of dealing with it. No wonder church history is such a mess!

[5] So authority in the church exists at these three levels: the top one of Christ’s authority, the secondary one of the Scriptures’ authority, and the tertiary one of the ministers’ authority. Christ’s authority is not generally challenged in the church, or at least not explicitly. It’s the second and third levels where things start to get iffy. The Lutheran conclusion was that the third may never trump the second: no amount of power, tradition, or prestige give human ministers of reconciliation the authority to overturn the authority of Scripture. This is the crisis internal to the church itself, where divine and contra-divine powers contend for the right to speak in God’s name, because in reality the third level is always trying to overturn the second and in this way indirectly overturn the first — such is the subtle idolatry of church people. The third level is continually lured away by other candidates for normative authority in the church: tradition was the snare for the medieval church, but today it is more likely to be competing philosophies, ethics, even other theologies. But Lutherans have always said that it is the Word of God, as found in the Scripture, that truly judges all other things, including the ministers of reconciliation and their ideas.

[6] Thus, Lutheran criticisms of contemporary church practice stemmed first and foremost from a reading and interpretation of the Scriptures. Elucidating the content of Scripture for believers was the basic task of Luther’s two Catechisms, which are notably unpolemical compared to the rest of the confessional documents — or at least not outright polemical; but if you doubt or dispute the content and authority of the Scriptures, they are very polemical indeed. Yet the Catechisms do not aspire to be anything other than pedagogical shorthand; the extended story is to be found in the Scriptures, whose words are constantly cited. The Augsburg Confession is even more efficient in this regard, having the task chiefly of addressing the abuses in the church, but it too starts with the content of the faith as the justification for its charges. The Augsburg Confession’s constant refrain is that its teaching is “clearly grounded in Holy Scripture” and “neither against nor contrary to the universal Christian church — or even the Roman church — so far as can be observed in the writings of the Fathers.”4 So also the Preface to the Book of Concord claims that the teaching of the documents contained therein is “well founded on the divine Scripture and briefly summarized in the time-honored, ancient Symbols: teaching that was recognized as that ancient, united consensus believed in by the universal, orthodox churches of Christ as fought for and reaffirmed against many heresies and errors.”5 The Confessions’ purpose and strategy is to make their case, with careful, thoughtful argument and extensive citation, about the meaning of the Scriptures, which are trusted to be the faithful witness to Who and what God truly is. The confessional documents’ authority is external to themselves; they came to be authoritative for Lutherans because of the conviction that their testimony was faithful and true as an exposition of the Scriptures. There is no claim, within the documents, to “authority” as simply a naked assertion of power or the right to decide. Authority is rather recognized in someone or something’s ability to convey the content of the message about and from the Lord.

[7] However, content has a hard time making itself heard in the fallen world without someone to give voice to it, a group to embody it, teachers to teach it and preachers to preach it. Hence the need for the third level of authority, the apostles and ministers sent by Christ. An anarchic church was a contradiction in terms for the Reformers; it only meant that the loudest heretic would win. Ideally, the publicly called ministers of reconciliation should see to it that the content of the Scriptures is faithfully proclaimed. Thus, they said, the task of bishops is “to preach the gospel, to forgive or retain sin, and to administer and distribute the sacraments” and also “to judge doctrine and reject doctrine that is contrary to the gospel, and to exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose ungodly life is manifest — not with human power but with God’s Word alone. That is why parishioners and churches owe obedience to bishops,” as ac 28 explains.6 But of course the Augsburg Confession was written at all because of the failure of bishops to do precisely that. So Lutherans must also say — invoking another favorite interpreter of the Scriptures, St. Augustine — that “one should not obey bishops, even if they have been regularly elected, when they err or teach and command something contrary to the holy, divine Scripture.”7 Bishops further “do not have the power to institute or establish something contrary to the gospel.”8 Obstinate bishops “will have to answer to God, since by their obstinacy they cause division and schism, which they should rightly help to prevent.”9

[8] The fact of such obstinate and faithless bishops, as it turns out, sometimes requires an outright rupture in the structure of the church. The Roman party wanted the Lutherans to continue to use “canonical ordination,” and the Lutherans even said (as Melanchthon puts it in his Apology) that it was their “greatest desire” to do so. The ancient church discipline instituted by the fathers was “for a good and useful purpose.” But the bishops were faithless and outright cruel. That was the reason for the abolition of the former structural pattern.10 “Those who are now bishops do not perform the duties of bishops according to the gospel,” Melanchthon writes, “even though they may well be bishops according to canonical order, about which we are not disputing.”11 In short, it looked to the Lutherans like the Roman party would allow the third level of authority to trump the second level. The Lutherans saw that structure offers no guarantees whatsoever. Obedience to church leaders is a good thing, the Reformers maintained; but this must be, to quote again from the Apology, “obedience under the gospel; it does not create an authority for bishops apart from the gospel. Bishops must not create traditions contrary to the gospel nor interpret their traditions in a manner contrary to the gospel. When they do so, we are forbidden to obey them by the statement [Gal. 1:8], ‘[I]f we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!”12

[9] So this is the balance: bishops and other church leaders are good and important things to have, with essential roles to play in the ministry of reconciliation — but only as long as they are faithful to the content of the faith as recorded in the Scriptures. Otherwise there is actually a mandate within Lutheranism to exercise ecclesiastical disobedience.13 In the Smalcald Articles, Luther goes so far as to exhort parishes to call and ordain their own faithful pastors if the bishops or church at large are unable or unwilling to provide.14 The only authority that a bishop or pastor may exercise is the spiritual authority bestowed by Christ in order to accomplish Christ’s own ends on earth. Melanchthon again, this time in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, explains: “The gospel bestows upon those who preside over the churches the commission to proclaim the gospel, forgive sins, and administer the sacraments. In addition, it bestows legal authority, that is, the charge to excommunicate those whose crimes are public knowledge and to absolve those who repent… As a result, when the regular bishops become enemies of the gospel or are unwilling to ordain, the churches retain their right to do so. For wherever the church exists, there also is the right to administer the gospel. Therefore, it is necessary for the church to retain the right to call, choose, and ordain ministers.”15 The mandate of ecclesiastical disobedience exists at both the individual and congregational level, not to dispense with human structure or authority altogether, but rather to identify and call another minister who will actually be faithful to the Scriptures. You might say this is something like a system of checks and balances, requiring the mutual accountability of clergy and laity, bishops and congregations. But it is important to note that even if relative harmony existed among all parties within a well-functioning structure, it would all be for naught if the result were not the faithful teaching of the scriptural witness. The content — which is the witness of the Scriptures — is always primary.

[10] This is the real sticking point, where the church’s internal crisis of authority becomes most acute. Because the third level of the authority of the church, the ministry of reconciliation by human sinners, is accountable to the second and first levels, namely the Scriptures and our Lord Jesus Christ, we must always ask whether the church’s ministers are rightfully using the authority granted them rather than abusing it. How does this third level of authority monitor itself? What happens when a person claiming the authority of Christ in reality teaches a content other than Christ’s content, the content found in the Scriptures? What happens if the word of God is not purely preached but in fact seriously distorted? What if the sacraments are administered in such a way as to belie what they are actually supposed to do and say? Who will do something about this and how? Some Christian traditions have trusted in the bishops, or magisterium, or pope to solve these problems; others have relied on a more local, congregational approach; still others a democratic synodical or convention-with-delegates system. But the Lutheran Confessions suggest that the problem of human authority is not soluble structurally, even though it must be addressed structurally. There is no office that is always going to be sinner-, heretic-, or traitor-free, just as there is no structure so cleverly arranged that it can outsmart a determined sinner. In principle, any structure would be acceptable — as long as it were faithful.

[11] The authority Christ has, and gives, is to speak and act in God’s name and with God’s words. We are in some ways so used to this that we forget what an awesome — and presumptuous — thing it is to do. Lutherans have always said that fidelity to Christ in his ministers is to be judged by the fidelity of their speech and action to the content of the Scriptures. Failure to be faithful is about the most grievous sin that can be committed: it is falsehood coming from the one place where the truth ought to be found. This is the constant complaint of the Old Testament prophets against their professional sycophantic counterparts. In the Large Catechism, Luther comments that the “greatest abuse” of the Second Commandment occurs “in spiritual matters, which affect the conscience, when false preachers arise and present their lying nonsense as God’s Word. See, all of this is an attempt to deck yourself out with God’s name or to put up a good front and justify yourself with his name, whether in ordinary worldly affairs or in sophisticated and difficult matters of faith and doctrine.”16 It’s precisely because the right to speak of and for God has been granted to the church and its ministers that their sins are so horrible. Luther notes the threat that goes with this commandment: “the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:7). For the Reformers, speech about God was not simply a matter of getting the record straight as an objective academic exercise. Salvation itself was at stake. Souls could be lost to God forever on account of falsely-speaking ministers; thus the Formula of Concord notes that the laity, “for the sake of their salvation, must distinguish between pure and false teaching.”17

[12] The idea that salvation is at stake here — at stake in our being the “teaching theologians of the elca” or the church at large — is not a fact that sits comfortably with us anymore. Why exactly that is, is beyond my capacity to assess. It might be confidence that God’s mercy will cover all sins. It might be cowardice in speaking the hard words of Scripture. It might be embarrassment at other Christians who crow about damnation. It might be unbelief. It might be fear of discrediting our faith in the eyes of a skeptical secular world. But if our chief purpose is to speak faithfully the words of the Scriptures, which are the sole source of our speech about God and the measure of our authority, then we cannot escape the very real possibility of the victory of sin, death, and the devil in people’s lives, now and on the last day.

[13] Perhaps it would make the issue a little easier to face to rephrase it like this. The critical issue is not whether God really loves and intends to forgive sinners, or whether He desires the salvation of all people. Clearly God does; that is scripturally attested often enough. The question for us is whether, through our ministry, sinners come to love, desire, and believe in the God of this salvation offered through Jesus Christ and no other. There is never a question of invalidating the salvation offered to us. But there is a question of leading souls away from it, so that they finally come not to desire the salvation offered only in and through Christ at all. We stumble here upon the most profound and dangerous questions of the freedom and bondage of the human will when confronted with the Holy Spirit, and the role that the ministers of reconciliation play in that. Here’s the hard truth: people claiming to speak for God can in fact lead others to love what God hates and hate what God loves. Ministers can claim to be forming souls toward God while in fact bending them away from Him. It is always within the realm of possibility that the teaching authority of the church will lead people to love a God Who is not the God of salvation in Christ, so that they will put their trust in a message that is actually false. Which of course means that it is always possible that the teachers, leaders, and ministers of the church themselves do not love the true God but despise Him and prefer an idol of their own making. It is awful to think that the ministers of the church can guide people to their own damnation. But there is no alleviating the tension here. We can’t resolve this issue to our comfort and reassurance without ignoring vast sections of the Scriptures.

[14] These are hard words, and there is little comfort to supplement them. While the Scriptures are generous in offering forgiveness, there is one place where they most frequently stop short, and that is in the case of the false prophets, false teachers, and false apostles. In fact, if there’s any question of salvation at stake here, it probably concerns above all those very people who are the teachers and leaders of the church, who claim to speak in God’s name! It is with good reason that the epistle of James warns: “Not many of you should become teachers… for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1).

[15] Keen awareness of the threat of heresy and everlasting estrangement from God has, in the past, provoked the church into horrendous sins of its own. The aftermath of the Reformation is evidence enough of that; and in any case controversy may sharpen our perception of the truth in one domain but make us all stupider in another. And ultimately the line of heresy doesn’t run only between groups of people but right through each of our own minds and hearts, as some portion of our person has been converted to Christ while another portion stubbornly resists him. This is what makes charity essential: the speaking-the-truth-in-love that St. Paul commanded. It suggests a strategy of theological discourse not dominated by politics or violence, hysteria or indifference — because it really is a matter of conversion to Christ. We dare not act or speak carelessly in a way that would lose or alienate others: because we might lose them forever. But all of this exercise of love happens within accountability to truth, to the authority of Jesus Christ, because God truly is one way and not another, and we are all called to grow in love for what God really is while breaking our attachment to what He really isn’t.18

[16] It is not possible to solve the problem of human authority in the church at the third level. It is ultimately the problem of sin, death, and the devil defying the victory of Christ’s resurrection from the dead — in our hearts and minds, too. Any attempt to impose a “permanent solution” to the tertiary authority problem in the church is going to result in greater betrayals. This nevertheless does not permit us either apathy or a free-for-all. Lutheranism cannot commend us any other way of dealing with the ongoing problems of sin and authority in the church than by referring us back again to the holy Scriptures. So many attempted solutions to authority or other pressing issues distract our attention: from establishing structures of supposed equity or balance, to confessional formulations divorced from their scriptural sources and turned into a litmus test, to the criteria of action in the world, to plausibility according to some external standard, even to the very practice of scriptural interpretation cleverly distorted and manipulated in the name of “hermeneutics.” A faithful ministerial authority in the church, exercising Christ’s own authority, directs people to God where we know God may be found and truly known, namely in the Word of God, in the senses both of Jesus Christ and the holy Scriptures. The authority of Christ and Scripture is not a formula to which we give lip service and then look elsewhere for the real answers, or a shortcut for hard work. It is a lived reality, the conversion of the whole life, the heart and the mind and the body all together.

[17] Every one of our words about God is accountable to the one Word of God. When we forget that we imperil other people’s reconciliation to God — as well as our own.


1. “The Formula of Concord,” in The Book of Concord, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 486, my italics [hereafter cited as FC].

2. Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 2.03. Available online at (accessed July 15, 2011).

3. Philip Melanchthon, “Apology of the Augsburg Confession,” Articles vii and viii, in The Book of Concord, 178 [hereafter cited as AP].

4. Philip Melanchthon, “The Augsburg Confession,” in The Book of Concord, 58 [hereafter cited as AC].

5. “Preface to the Book of Concord,” in The Book of Concord, 5.

6. AC XXVIII, 92, 94.

7. AC XXVIII, 94.

8. AC XXVIII, 96.

9. AC XXVIII, 102.

10. AP XIV, 222–3.

11. AP XXVIII, 290.

12. AP XXVIII, 291.

13. Melanchthon notes that Gratian’s decretals require non-obedience to a heretical pope; an interesting admission from canon law that a heretical pope is, in fact, possible. Philip Melanchthon, “Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope,” in The Book of Concord, 336 [hereafter cited as PPP].

14. Martin Luther, “The Smalcald Articles,” in The Book of Concord, 323–4. Luther backs up his exhortation with an appeal to the practice of the early church.

15. PPP, 341.

16. Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in The Book of Concord, 393.

17. FC 528.

18. The FC understood the gravity of what was at stake: “Those who are weak in the faith do take offense because of these controversies: some doubt whether the pure teaching exists among us in view of these divisions, and some do not know which group among us they should support regarding the articles of faith under dispute. For these controversies are not merely misunderstandings or semantic arguments, where someone might think that one group had not sufficiently grasped what the other group was trying to say or that the tensions were based upon only a few specific words of relatively little consequence. Rather, these controversies deal with important and significant matters, and they are of such a nature that the positions of the erring party neither could nor should be tolerated in the church of God, much less be excused or defended.” FC 526.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is Assistant Research Professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and the Editor of Lutheran Forum.