Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Role and Authority of the Lutheran Confessional Writings: Do Lutherans Really "Condemn the Anabaptists"?

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Role and Authority of the Lutheran Confessional Writings: Do Lutherans Really "Condemn the Anabaptists"?

Article excerpt

Abstract: Written for the opening session of a round of dialogue between the Mennonite Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, this essay explores the nature of the authority of the Lutheran confessional writings, and the meaning and possible binding nature of the condemnations of Anabaptists contained especially in the Augsburg Confession (1530). Arguing that it is the doctrinal content of the Confession that is binding for Lutherans today, and that historical judgments contained in the Confession are relative and fallible, the essay suggests the possibility that the condemnations of Anabaptists in the Augsburg Confession do not apply to Mennonites participating in these dialogues.


While it is true that Lutherans have given priority to dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, and that those conversations are foundational for any genuine undoing of the breaches of Christian unity that occurred in the sixteenth century, the prospect of dialogue between Lutherans and Mennonites is a welcome and important challenge. (1) For it is also true that the breach Lutherans have suffered with--and to some extent inflicted upon--the Anabaptists and their heirs was in fact already a reality before the Reformers lived through the breakdown of conversations with the Roman Catholic Church in the middle of the sixteenth century. So these are important conversations. I write this essay with a deep awareness of the courage and evangelical commitment demonstrated by the Mennonite dialogue partners in making these conversations possible. The churches of the Augsburg Confession are driven to these conversations both out of commitments recorded at the deepest levels of our confessional writings, and out of a sense that we who were at the center of the western church's sixteenth-century fractures bear central responsibility for seeking healing and reconciliation. We cannot know to what these conversations might lead, and we undertake them knowing that we Lutherans have not been nearly so energetic in trying to initiate these conversations as we have been in carrying on the now forty-six year old conversations with the Roman Catholic Church. Still, both are at the dialogue table. And that is good.

To be sure, we have seen very promising starts to ecumenical dialogue in Europe. From 1981-1984 representatives of the 2000 Mennonites in France met for dialogue with their counterparts representing some 300,000 Lutherans, and the results were encouraging, speaking of "confessing the same faith, in words and deeds, in the dead and risen Christ whose return we await." (2) And from 1989 to 1992 German Lutherans and Mennonites held bilateral conversations, culminating in a statement that foreshadowed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican's PCPCU in October 1999: "With one mind we declare that, according to our insight into the life and teaching of the Mennonite congregations in the AMG, the condemnations of the CA no longer apply to today's partner in conversation. And, to the still-remaining differences between our churches and societies we attribute no church-dividing significance." (3)

This paper will (1) offer a responsible and integrative reading of the Lutheran confessional writings of the sixteenth century (to be sure, with a focus on their condemnations of the "Anabaptists"); (2) name the problem that arises from such condemnations; and (3) suggest some foundational principles ("golden rules") for ecumenical conversation that have been gleaned from the past half-century of bilateral conversations or that have been constructed as glosses on what has transpired that may serve my proposals for the conversations ahead-should God grant that these efforts bear the fruit of continuation into God's own future.


The Constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America gives the binding language about the nature of the authority of the confessional writings for this church:

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