Augsburg Confession – Article 26 – The Distinction of Foods

Article 26 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

(To read Article 25, click here.)

Previously people have taught, preached, and written that observing the distinction of foods and similar traditions instituted by men helps people merit grace and make satisfaction for their sin.1 On this basis people have come up with new fasts, new ceremonies, new orders and the like every day and have urged them fiercely and powerfully, as if these things were necessary forms of worship through which people would merit grace if they kept them, and would commit grave sin if they did not. This has led to a lot of pernicious error in the church.

First, it has the effect of obscuring the grace of Christ and the doctrine of faith, which holds the gospel before us with great earnestness and powerfully urges people to esteem and cherish the merit of Christ and to know that faith in Christ should be set far and away beyond all works. That is why Saint Paul has fiercely attacked the Law of Moses and human traditions, so that we might learn that we do not become pious before God by our works, but only through faith in Christ, and that we obtain grace for Christ’s sake. This doctrine has almost been completely extinguished through the teaching that people can merit grace by observing appointed fasts, distinguishing between foods, dressing a certain way, etc.

Second, such traditions have also obscured God’s commands, for these traditions are set far above God’s commands. This is all that people think the Christian life consists of: If people observe these festivals, pray these prayers, observe these fasts, dress this way—that’s called a spiritual, Christian life. At the same time, other good works that are actually necessary are considered to be a worldly, unspiritual existence, namely those that each person is responsible for according to his vocation, such as the head of the household working to support his wife and children and to bring them up in the fear of God, the mother bearing children and attending to them, a prince or ruling body governing land and people, etc. These works that are commanded by God had to be a worldly and imperfect existence, while the traditions had to have the sparkling reputation, so that they alone were called holy, perfect works. Accordingly there was neither limit nor end of making such traditions.

Second page of Article 26 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

Third, such traditions have turned into a heavy burdening of consciences. For it was impossible to keep all the traditions, and nevertheless the people were of the opinion that they were a necessary form of worship. And Gerson writes that many have fallen into despair over this; some have even killed themselves on account of the fact that they heard no comfort from the grace of Christ.2 For one can see how consciences are bewildered from the scholastics and theologians who have attempted to compile all the traditions, and those who have sought some balance to help those consciences have had to spend so much time on it that in the meantime all beneficial Christian doctrine about necessary matters, such as faith, comfort in difficult trials and the like, was smothered. Many pious, learned people in the past have also complained loudly about this, that such traditions cause a lot of strife in the church, and that pious people are hindered with them and cannot come to the proper knowledge of Christ. Gerson and several others have complained fiercely about this. Yes, it even displeased Augustine that consciences were burdened with so many traditions. That is why he gives instruction along with them, so that people do not regard them as necessary things.4

Our men have therefore not taught about these matters out of insolence or contempt for spiritual authority, but dire need has required them to give instruction about the above-cited errors, which have developed from a misunderstanding of traditions. For the gospel compels us that we should and must promote the doctrine of faith in the church, but this doctrine cannot be understood if people are under the false impression that they can merit grace through self-chosen works.

And so we teach in this regard that a person cannot merit grace or appease God or make satisfaction for sin by keeping said human traditions. And therefore they should not be made into necessary forms of worship. The reason for this is drawn from Scripture. In Matthew 15 Christ excuses the apostles when they had not kept the customary traditions, and he says in addition, “They honor me in vain with human rules.” Now if he calls this an act of worship done in vain, it must not be necessary. And shortly thereafter: “What goes into the mouth does not defile a person.” Likewise Paul says in Romans 14: “The kingdom of heaven does not consist in food or drink.” Colossians 2: “No one should judge you in food, drink, Sabbath, etc.” Peter says in Acts 15: “Why do you test God by imposing on the disciples’ necks the yoke that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? No, we believe that we are saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the same way that they are.” There Peter forbids us from burdening consciences with more external ceremonies, whether they be of Moses or others. And in 1 Timothy 4 prohibitions like prohibiting food, marriage, etc. are called devil’s doctrine. For this is diametrically opposed to the gospel, when such works are instituted or performed in order to merit the forgiveness of sins, or the impression is given that no one can be a Christian without performing them.

Third page of Article 26 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

But as for the accusation that our teachers forbid mortification and discipline, like Jovinian did,5 much to the contrary can be found in their writings. For they have always taught about the holy cross that Christians are duty-bound to suffer, and this is real and serious, not invented, mortification. In addition, we also teach that everyone is duty-bound to keep himself in check with physical discipline, such as with fasting and other works, so that he does not give himself occasion to sin, not so that he can merit grace with such works.6 Such physical discipline should not just be urged on certain appointed days, but constantly. Christ speaks of this in Luke 21: “Guard yourselves, that your hearts do not become weighed down by dissipation.” Likewise: “The demons are not expelled except through fasting and prayer.”7 And Paul says that he mortified his body and brought it into obedience.8 He thereby indicates that mortification should serve not to merit grace but to keep the body prepared, so that it does not keep anyone from doing what has been entrusted to him according to his calling. And so we do not reject fasting itself, but the fact that it has been turned into a necessary act of worship on appointed days and with certain foods, with the result that it confuses consciences.

We on our part also retain many ceremonies and traditions, such as the order of the Mass and other songs, festivals, etc., which help to preserve good order in the church. But in addition, the people are instructed that such outward worship does not make one pious before God, and that it should be observed without burdening the conscience, so that if someone gives it up without giving offense, no sin is committed in doing so. The ancient Fathers also preserved this freedom in outward ceremonies. For in the East Easter was observed at a different time than in Rome.9 And when some wanted to treat this difference as a rupture in the church, they were admonished by others that it is not necessary to maintain unity in such customs. And Irenaeus has this to say: “Differences in fasting do not rupture the unity of the faith.”10 So too it is written in Distinction 12 that such differences in human ordinances are not contrary to the unity of Christendom.11 And the Tripartite History, in Book 9, compiles many dissimilar church customs and sets down a useful Christian saying, “The apostles’ intention was not to institute festivals, but to teach faith and love.”12

Notes

1 Thomas Aquinas had written in his famous Summa Theologiae (composed from 1265-1274), Part 2, Section 2, Question 147, Article 1 (e.g. in the bottom of the left column in the 1512 Haguenau edition published by Heinrich Gran):

The practice of fasting is adopted chiefly for three reasons: First, of course, in order to keep the longings of the flesh in check. … Secondly, it is adopted in order that the mind may be more readily elevated to the contemplation of the sublime. … Thirdly, in order to make satisfaction for sins.

2 Melanchthon is citing Jean Charlier de Gerson (1363-1429), a French scholar, educator, reformer, and poet. Gerson wished to banish scholastic subtleties from the studies of the University of Paris, and at the same time to put some evangelical warmth into them, giving them a more spiritual and practical focus. Scholars are unsure which of Gerson’s works Melanchthon is citing here.

3 Liber de vita spirituali animae (The Spiritual Life of the Soul), in Joannis Gersonii Doctoris Theologi & Cancellarii Parisiensis Opera Omnia, ed. Louis Ellies du Pin, vol. 3 (Antwerp, 1706), Reading 2 (cols. 16-17); Reading 4, Corollary 11 (cols. 44-45).

4 Augustine treated the subject of traditions especially brilliantly in two letters he wrote in reply to a certain Januarius (Letters 54 and 55). Here is an excerpt from the former:

I desire you therefore, in the first place, to hold fast this as the fundamental principle in the present discussion, that our Lord Jesus Christ has appointed to us a “light yoke” and an “easy burden,” as He declares in the Gospel: in accordance with which He has bound His people under the new dispensation together in fellowship by sacraments, which are in number very few, in observance most easy, and in significance most excellent, as baptism solemnized in the name of the Trinity, the communion of His body and blood, and such other things as are prescribed in the canonical Scriptures, with the exception of those enactments which were a yoke of bondage to God’s ancient people, suited to their state of heart and to the times of the prophets, and which are found in the five books of Moses. As to those other things which we hold on the authority, not of Scripture, but of tradition, and which are observed throughout the whole world, it may be understood that they are held as approved and instituted either by the apostles themselves, or by plenary Councils, whose authority in the Church is most useful, e.g. the annual commemoration, by special solemnities, of the Lord’s passion, resurrection, and ascension, and of the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven, and whatever else is in like manner observed by the whole Church wherever it has been established. There are other things, however, which are different in different places and countries: e.g., some fast on Saturday, others do not; some partake daily of the body and blood of Christ, others receive it on stated days: in some places no day passes without the sacrifice being offered; in others it is only on Saturday and the Lord’s day, or it may be only on the Lord’s day. In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live. … I answer, therefore, that if the authority of Scripture has decided which of these methods is right, there is no room for doubting that we should do according to that which is written; and our discussion must be occupied with a question, not of duty, but of interpretation as to the meaning of the divine institution. In like manner, if the universal Church follows any one of these methods, there is no room for doubt as to our duty; for it would be the height of arrogant madness to discuss whether or not we should comply with it. But the question which you propose is not decided either by Scripture or by universal practice. It must therefore be referred to the third class—as pertaining, namely, to things which are different in different places and countries.

5 The ascetic Jovinian (d. c. 405) was much maligned, and his views exaggerated, by Jerome’s later invective in his two books Against Jovinian, written in 393. Jovinian did not so much oppose mortification and discipline, as he did the idea that such measures were meritorious or possessed a character of moral elevation. Melanchthon’s characterization of him here is based on Jerome’s.

6 Modern-day examples would include self-imposed or mutually arranged accountability measures with regard to internet usage, consumption of food or drink, recreational pastimes, etc.

7 Mark 9:29

8 1 Corinthians 9:27

9 In Asia Minor Easter was observed on the Jewish day of Passover (14 Nisan), but in Rome and the rest of the Christian world it was observed on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox (see Eusebius, Church HistoryBook 5, Chapter 23).

10 Quoted in Eusebius, Church HistoryBook 5, Chapter 24, par. 13.

11 See Gratian’s Decretum, Part 1, Distinction 12, Chapter 10 here (type 98 in the “Jump to page” field and click Go). The excerpt cited there was penned by Gregory the Great to Augustine of Canterbury (Bishop of the Angli from 597-604) and reads as follows:

Thy Fraternity [dignified way of addressing Augustine] knows the use of the Roman Church, in which thou hast been nurtured. But I approve of thy selecting carefully anything thou hast found that may be more pleasing to Almighty God, whether in the Roman Church or that of Gaul, or in any Church whatever, and introducing in the Church of the Angli, which is as yet new in the faith, by a special institution, what thou hast been able to collect from many Churches. For we ought not to love things for places, but places for things. Wherefore choose from each several Church such things as are pious, religious, and right, and, collecting them as it were into a bundle, plant them in the minds of the Angli for their use.

The entire letter is available in its entirety in English here. (To distinguish this Augustine from the more renowned Augustine of Hippo, some choose to pronounce the former AW-gus-teen and the latter u-GUS-tin.)

12 Rf. Note 13 under Article 24. Melanchthon’s reference (from Book 9, Chapter 38) can be viewed on folio 78b here. It is based on Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 22.

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About redbrickparsonage
Red Brick Parsonage is operated by a confessional Lutheran pastor serving in the South of the U.S.A.

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