Mariology, Sola Scriptura and the Principles of the Evangelical Lutheran Church

The Holy Bible

The Holy Bible

Our first exploration of the way in which our theological traditions color our scriptural interpretations was in the area of church order. (This reference is to the book “Why Mary Matters”.)This was by intent, as a way of exploring that thesis without scaring anyone off. But it is also true that our theological traditions color our perception of the Virgin Mary. It is fascinating to read the views of the Reformers and contrast them with those of their theological descendants, if only to see how much divergence there has been. This is perhaps easiest in the case of the Lutherans, whose doctrine is contained in the 16th century confessions of their faith, expressed over and against the Roman Catholics, but also against the so-called enthusiasts, those for whom the Holy Spirit worked apart from Word or Sacrament.

Once upon a time I had an extended discussion with a Lutheran seminarian who dismissed all evidence from the Lutheran Book of Concord (commonly known as the Confessions, or the Symbolic Books) regarding the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, ultimately stating that if I could prove that was really what the Confessions taught, he would still not believe it because it ran contrary to his own beliefs. This evidenced a faulty and incomplete understanding of the scriptural principle, a rejection of the catholic principle, a misunderstanding of the confessional principle, and a failure to think critically concerning the delimiting principle. It is important to understand exactly what these mean, and how they relate to each other in helping create and define the role of the Lutheran Confessions as the interpretive lens of Sacred Scripture. And this is important because it lays the foundation for an understanding of how the Lutheran Confessions understand themselves, how Lutherans are expected to understand them, and how they guide the Lutheran’s interpretation of Sacred Scripture.

Concerning the catholic principle Holsten Fagerberg writes the following: “The Confessions often claim to represent a Biblical theology in harmony with the earliest church fathers.” (Fagerberg 1972) [Emphasis added.] This is clear from the very first sentence of the Augsburg Confession, which is a statement regarding both the catholic principle and the confessional principle: “Our churches teach with common consent [confessional principle] that the decree of the Council of Nicaea [catholic principle] about the unity of the divine essence and the three persons is true”.[1] [Emphasis added.]

The Preface to the Christian Book of Concord makes it clear that the Confessions were compiled from Scripture[2] (the scriptural principle), and written to describe and defend the faith (the catholic principle and the confessional principle) over and against doctrinal error (the delimiting principle). And so we can now define these four principles.

  • Scriptural Principle: The confessions were compiled from the Sacred Scriptures, and are in perfect agreement with them.
  • Catholic Principle: The confessions are in harmony with the doctrinal interpretations of the church catholic.
  • Confessional Principle: The confessions represent the common consent of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, both now and for all time.
  • Delimiting Principle: The confessions are not a comprehensive summary of Lutheran dogma, but were created to define the faith over and against error.

The content of the Confessions is necessarily delimited by the errors which were extant at the time they were written. The confessions are not, nor were they intended to be, a comprehensive doctrinal statement; nor are they a dogmatics discourse. In the words of Edmund Schlink: “We may therefore designate the theology of the Confessions as the legitimate ‘Prolegomena to Dogmatics'”. (Schlink 1961, 33) As Prolegomena, “the Confessions are the model of all church doctrine, including all dogmatic endeavor,” yet the scriptures remain the norm for dogmatics. Thus the scriptures are termed the primary authority (the norma normans), while the confessions are termed the secondary authority (the norma normata).[3]

Piepkorn remarks that the Confessions do not contain this distinction between norma normans and norma normata, between the primary authority and the secondary authority, but instead refer to both Scripture and Confession as norms.

[W]e have learned to speak very glibly of the Sacred Scriptures as a norma normans and of the Symbolical Books as a norma normata. …The Book of Concord does not know the distinction. To the authors of the Formula the Scriptures are norma, supreme and unchallenged in their divine authority; but to them the Symbolical Books are likewise norma, by which the doctors of the past are to be tested and the doctors of the future are to be guided. Exactly how old this careful differentiation between norma normans and norma normata is, I have not been able to discover. I have not found the terms prior to John William Baier.[4][5] (Piepkorn, The Significance of the Lutheran Symbols for Today 2007, 82-83)

It is also important to note that we moderns use the term norm to mean criteria or standard. The confessors used the term in a manner roughly equivalent to the philosophical term “form”.

The norm is in a sense the form which the tangible, palpable matter seeks to express, by which the matter is informed, and to which it is conformed. Thus in the Sacred Scriptures, in the Symbols, and in the concrete expressions of the Church’s continuing ministry, we have a material element which changes from language to language, from situation to situation and from generation to generation, and we have a formal element[,] the unalterable Word of God. (Piepkorn, The Significance of the Lutheran Symbols for Today 2007, 86) [6]

Just because the Symbolical Books do not make the distinction between norma normans and norma normata does not mean no such distinction exists. Piepkorn refers to both the Sacred Scriptures and the Symbolical Books as the material element, but calls the Word of God the formal element. By “formal element”, Piepkorn means something roughly the equivalent of norma normans, as we see when Piepkorn calls Sacred Scripture “the perpetual and supreme norm”. (Piepkorn, The Significance of the Lutheran Symbols for Today 2007, 86) Thus, although the specific terms denoting differing levels of norms are not found in the confessions, it is still possible to make a dogmatic distinction between the authority of the Sacred Scriptures and the Symbolical books.

In this way the distinction between the Holy Scripture of the the Old and New Testaments and all other writings is maintained, and Holy Scripture remains the only judge, rule, and norm according to which as the only touchstone all doctrines should and must be understood as good or evil, right or wrong. (Tappert, et al. 1959, 465)

When Lutherans speak of the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures as the sole judge, rule, and norm, they use the term sola scriptura, or scripture alone. Sola scriptura was originally a Lutheran term, but has come to define Protestantism in general. Yet when most Protestants speak of sola scriptura, they are actually talking about nuda scriptura — the naked scriptures.[7] There is a substantive difference between using Sacred Scripture as the sole rule and norm, placed in its own context with an attempt to understand not only what the author originally intended, but how the church has historically understood it; and using Sacred Scripture as the sole rule and norm, divorced of its own context and the author’s intended meaning, and with no regard for the historic understanding of Sacred Scripture. For Protestants, nuda scriptura, the naked scriptures, are the unmediated scriptures. Nothing comes between the individual and his or her own interpretation, supposedly guided by the Holy Spirit. Thus nuda scriptura is a prescription for enthusiasms, for an ecstatic, orgasmic, hyperbolic, and individualistic worship of a God made in our own image and to our own likings.

By contrast with some modern Protestants, the church has always required a summary formula and pattern of doctrine, approved by common consent, which forms the basis for a common confession of the faith.[8] Of this, Schmauk and Benze write: “The fact is that the Scripture is the word of God extended; and the Creed is the word of God condensed; but condensed in the one way in which we can do it, viz., by a universal, churchly, scholarly, and providential human effort.” (Schmauk and Benze 2005, 31) Lutheran theologian Robert Preus describes a threefold tier of authority: scripture, confessions, and other good Christian literature. (Preus 1977, 22) In fact, the rejection of the latter two places the first in jeopardy, as the confession of the Church as community must take precedence over private interpretation.

The act of individual confession[9] is inseparably related to the church’s confession. The Scriptures themselves contain fragments of early Christian creeds in circulation before the New Testament scriptures were written.[10] Of this, J.N.D. Kelly writes: “…the early Church was from the start a believing, confessing church.” (Kelly 1972, 7) Herman Sasse describes the difference between the rule of faith and the rule of doctrine thusly: “Religion is not doctrine; consequently, doctrine cannot belong to the essence of Christianity; rather it must be a secondary expression of Christianity. Doctrine belongs to the church [over against the individual]. As such it is a concretization of Christianity.” (Sasse 2001, 101) [Emphasis added.] So how are we to interpret scripture, to make our faith concrete while avoiding the “private interpretation” Peter warns about?[11] How are we to build our faith upon the foundation of the prophets and the apostles, upon the rule of faith? Through the Church, and through the confession of the Church — which is the rule of doctrine.

Schmauk and Benze describe the confession of the church as follows:

The use of Confessions, then, is clear: first, They summarize Scripture for us; secondly, They interpret it for the Church; thirdly, They bring us into agreement in the one true interpretation, and thus set up a public standard, which becomes a guard against false doctrine and practice; fourthly, and this is their most important use, They become the medium of instruction, or education, of one generation to the next, in their preservation, transmission and communication through all future ages of the one true faith of the Church. (Schmauk and Benze 2005, 21)

The first part of the Augsburg Confession concludes with these words: “…this teaching is grounded clearly on the Holy Scriptures and is not contrary or opposed to that of the universal Christian church, or even of the Roman church (in so far as the latter’s teaching is reflected in the writings of the Fathers)…”[12] The Augustana concludes with these words: “…nothing has been received among us, [either] in doctrine or in ceremonies, that is contrary to Scripture or the church catholic.”[13] Schlink writes, “A Confession is not the deed of an individual, but an act of consensus — Tota Scriptura and tota ecclesia belong together in the Confession. …The Confession is the voice of the whole church.” (Schlink 1961, 17) Sasse writes of Christian confession: “Here it is not an individual Christian who speaks,[14] but rather the church of Christ.” (Sasse 2001, 103)

The Henkel brothers, in their Historical Introduction to their translation of the German language Book of Concord, write of the necessity of Christian symbols as a defense of the faith over against error.

From the iniquity of man it could not fail that contradictory opinions should arise in the church herself proceed from external controversy to internal disquietude because the church in her temporal condition has false Christians and hypocrites in midst she was soon obliged therefore to establish Symbols for the purpose of giving evidence of her faith, of refuting false accusations, and of pernicious errors, and in accommodation to the progress of time, to new Symbols without rejecting the old, not for the purpose of establishing new doctrines but for the purpose of acknowledging anew the old Symbols, — those truths derived from the Fathers, — and of providing them with new defences against encroaching errors. (Henkel and Henkel 1854, 11)

Sasse writes more expansively on this issue:

Because Christian revelation is historical revelation all confessions look to the past. They point back to the once and there of salvation history (‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’). Thus it makes sense that their content is understood not to be new, but rather old, truth. ‘The truth has already long since been found’ stands invisibly as a preface to all confessions. Thus the [old Roman] baptismal symbol is antedated by the apostles, the ‘Constantinoplitanum’ by Nicaea and the ‘Quicunque’ by Athanasius. Thus the Augustana begins with the confirmation of the ‘decretum Nicainae synodi’ [‘the decree of the Council of Nicaea,’ AC I 1]. This is one of the most difficult stumbling blocks for modern man. He can only conceive of a confession which looks entirely to the present and, if at all possible, ignores history. (Sasse 2001, 106-107)

Lutherans believe in the church visible and the church invisible, and understand any particular Christian confession to be not the confession of any individual, nor of the visible church, but of the invisible church, made up of the saints in all times and all places. For the Lutherans, a Christian confession must be consistent with that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.[15] The catholic principle says that Lutheran doctrine is not unique, not an innovation,[16] but consistent with the apostolic faith, as delimited by the Vincentian Canon.[17] The natural implication and declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church is that the Latins were the ones who had departed from the apostolic faith, and by natural extension that the Papacy, in exalting itself above and opposing Christ, is therefore the true Antichrist.[18]

The supposed catholicity of the Lutheran Confessions is demonstrated not only by the inclusion of the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed in the Book of Concord, but the references to the creeds in the individual confessions.[19] This indicates the Lutheran confessors had no intention of being unique and innovative in matters of faith and practice, but considered themselves to be solidly within the doctrine of the church catholic. The Augustana[20] alone contains numerous references to the Fathers, to canon law,[21] and to church history: Article I declares the truth of the Nicene Creed[22]; Article III references the Apostles’ Creed[23]; Articles VI and XX quote St. Ambrose[24]; Articles XVIII and XX quote St. Augustine[25]; Article XXII quotes St. Cyprian[26], St. Jerome[27], Pope Gelasius[28], and even Canon law[29]. Article XXIV quotes St. Ambrose[30], St. Chrystostom[31], the records of the Council of Nicea[32], and the Tripartite History of Epiphanius Scholasticus[33]; Article XXV quotes St. Christostom[34] and canon law[35]; Article XXVI references John Gerson[36] and Augustine[37], Pope Gregory[38], and the Tripartite History[39], and quotes Irenaeus[40]; Article XXVII quotes St. Augustine, going so far as to say “Augustine’s authority should not be taken lightly”,[41] as well as referencing Gerson[42]; Article XXVII references Canon Law[43] and quotes St. Augustine.[44] Moreover the Catalogue of Testimonies was appended to the Book of Concord to demonstrate the Lutheran teaching of the two natures in Christ is consistent with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith; it opens by quoting canon law, the decrees of the ecumenical councils, and synodical letters, in addition to numerous citations of the church fathers. Therefore the Lutheran Confessions both imply and depend upon catholicity as evidence of their proper interpretation of scripture.



Fagerberg, Holsten. A New Look at the Lutheran Confessions: 1529-1537. Translated by Gene J. Lund. St. Louis: Condordia Publishing House, 1972.

Henkel, Ambrose, and Socrates Henkel. “The Christian Book of Concord, Or, Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.” Vers. 2nd Edition, Revised. Google Book Search. Solomon D. Henkel and Brs. 1854.,M1 (accessed January 20, 2009).

Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Creeds. 3rd. Essex: Longman House, 1972.

Piepkorn, Arthur Carl. The Significance of the Lutheran Symbols for Today. Vol. 2, in The Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions: Selected Writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Volume 2, by Arthur Carl Piepkorn, edited by Philip J. Secker, 78-101. Manafield: CEC Press, 2007.

Preus, Robert. Getting Into the Theology of Concord: A Study of the Book of Concord. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977.

Sasse, Herman. The Lonely Way: Selected Letters and Essays . Translated by Matthew Harrison, Robert G Bugbee, Lowell C Green, Gerald S Krispin, Marice E Schild and John R Stephenson. Vol. 1. 2 vols. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2001.

Schlink, Edmund. Theology of the Lutheran Confessions. Translated by Paul F Koehneke and Herbert J.A. Bouman. St. Louis: Condordia Publishing House, 1961.

Schmauk, Theodore E., and C. Theodore Benze. the Confessional Principle and the Confessions of the Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Condordia Publishing House, 2005.

Tappert, Theodore G., Jaroslav Pelikan, Robert H. Fischer, and Arthur C. Piepkorn, . The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959.

[1] AC 1:1. The confessional principle is summed up in the phrase “our churches teach with common consent”; the delimiting principle is summed up in, but not limited by, the phrase “our churches condemn all heresies”. Both of these statements are more commonly formulated as “we believe, teach and confess” and “we reject and condemn”.

[2] Preface to the Christian Book of Concord

[3] John William Baier (1647-95) was a 17th century Lutheran theologian, primarily known for his dogmatics text Compendium of Positive Theology.

[4] C.F.W. Walther, considered the founder of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, writes that the “marks of the church are the unadulterated teaching of the divine Word and the uncorrupted administration of the sacraments.” (Walther 1961, 8) John Zizioulas describes the problems inherent in using norms as the delimiting criteria for communal unity. For a long time now the Churches have been using criteria of unity by singling out various norms (this or that ministry, this or that doctrine, etc.). And yet every such norm taken in itself cannot but be a false criterion. The Church relates to the the apostles in and through the presence of the eschatological community in history. This is not a denial of history, for it is through historical forms that this presence takes place. But the ultimate criterion for unity is to be found in the question to what extent the actual form of the Church’s ministry and message today — or at any given time — reflect the presence of this eschatological community. (Zizioulas 1985, 207-208)

[5] Piepkorn cites Joh. Guilielmi Baieri Compendium Theologiae Positivae (first edition, 1686). This means the distinction between norma normans and norma normata postdates the confessional period by more than a century. (Piepkorn, The Significance of the Lutheran Symbols for Today 2007, 99)

[6] If we accept that the idea of the Scriptures as the primary norm and the confessions as the secondary norm are not found prior to Baier, then it might be acceptable to argue that this idea is a development of Lutheran scholasticism, and not an essential part of the deposit of the faith. However, Peipkorn’s idea that the confessions use norm in a manner consistent with the philosophical term “form”, making the Sacred Scriptures formal element and the Sacred Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, and the “concrete expressions of the Church’s continuing ministry” would seem to indicate the expression of tiers of authority may be derived from the Confessions themselves, rather than being a new doctrine. Since I am no longer Lutheran, it is not proper for me to take a stand one way or another.

[7] Arthur Carl Piepkorn writes: “All Lutherans take very seriously the three Reformation solas – sola gratia, sola fatia, and sola Scriptura. Sometimes Lutherans — even grave theologians among them — disengage the principle of sola Scriptura from its historical context, where it is merely another way of affirming the sufficiency and adequacy of the Biblical revelation in terms of what must be known and believed for salvation and have absolutized it into nuda Scriptura. (Piepkorn, The Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions 2007, xxviii-xxix)

[8] SD 1

[9] Rom 10:9

[10] See 1 Cor 15:3ff; Rom 1:3ff; 8:34; 1 Tim 6:13ff; 2 Tim 2:8; 4:1; of particular interest is 1 Pet 3:18-22, where Peter appears to be quoting and expounding upon an ancient baptismal creed, similar to the 2nd article of the Apostle’s Creed. (Kelly 1972)

[11] 2 Pet 1:20

[12] AC XXI[Conclusion]:1

[13] AC XXVIII[Conclusion]:5

[14] Sasse points out that even Peter’s confession of faith in Matthew 16:16 was not individual, but corporate: Jesus had addressed his question in the plural to all the disciples, and Peter answered for them all. This is proven in v.20, where Jesus commands them to tell know one he is the Christ. (Sasse 2001)

[15] Known as the Vincentian Canon, as found in Vincent of Lerins, The Commonitory: “Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.” (P. Schaff, NPNF2-11. Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian 2004, 214)

[16] In the conversations between the Tübingen theologians and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Jacob Andreae and Martin Crusius wrote: “It is true that the highpriest of Rome accuses us of innovation… As a result, [we] gave up the dogmas and traditions of the Roman highpriest that were contradictory to the Holy Scriptures. …We on our part, had hoped that we were in no way innovating on the main articles concerning salvation, since (as far as we know) we held and had kept the faith which had been handed down to us by the Holy Apostles and Prophets, by the God-bearing Fathers and Partriarchs, and by the seven Ecumenical Synods that were founded upon the God-given Scriptures.” See Mastrantonis, G. Augsburg and Constanople: The Correspondence between the Tübingen Theologians and Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople on the Augsburg Confession. P. 28-29. 1982. Brookline, Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

[17] Whether Lutheran doctrine (and Protestantism in general) is actually catholic in the sense of the Vincentian Canon is another matter entirely. Lutherans at least claim catholicity, while Protestants generally do not.

[18] SA IV:10

[19] It is useful to note that while Lutherans call these the three ecumenical creeds, the Orthodox use neither the Apostles Creed nor the Athanasian Creed. The Anglican/Episcopalian communion adds the Definition of Chalcedon.

[20] Augustana is another name for the

[21] Schlink discusses church order, or “jus divinum“, and canon law, or “jus humanum“, as the “essence of the directives by which the church regulates its service in obedience to its commission.” Canon law is part of church government, which is derived from and subordinate to the command to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments, described in AC V (The Office of the Ministry). Obedience to church authority is therefore an “expression of the liberation bestowed by the Gospel”. (Schlink 1961)

[22] AC I:1

[23] AC II:6

[24] AC VI:3; XX:14

[25] AC XVIII:4;XX:13

[26] AC XXII:5

[27] AC XXII:6

[28] AC XXII:7

[29] AC XXII:9

[30] AC XXIV:33

[31] AC XXIV:36

[32] AC XXIV:38

[33] AC XXIV:41

[34] AC XXV:11

[35] AC XXV:12; where the Gloss is an explanatory note of the pertinent canon law as found in the Decretum Gratiani.

[36] AC XXVI:16

[37] AC XXVI:17

[38] AC XXVI:44

[39] AC XXVI:45

[40] AC XXVI:44

[41] AC XXVII:35

[42] AC XXVII:60

[43] AC XXVIII:27,34-35

[44] AC SS VII:28

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