Augsburg Confession – Article 28 – Episcopal Authority

Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

(To read Article 27, click here.)

About episcopal authority much has been written in the past, and in that wide-ranging array of writings one can find a number of authors who have improperly intermixed the authority of the bishops with the secular sword. This improper confusion has led to very great wars, insurrection, and rebellion, occasioned by the fact that the bishops, under the pretext of their authority given to them by Christ, have not only instituted new forms of worship and burdened consciences with the reservation of certain cases1 and with fierce bans, but have also presumed to set up and depose emperors and kings as they pleased. Learned and God-fearing people within Christendom have rebuked this outrage long ago. Accordingly, for the comfort of consciences, our men have been compelled to point out the distinction between the spiritual and secular authority, sword, and government, and they have taught that, because of God’s command, people should honor and respect the government and authority of both, with all devotion, as two supreme gifts of God on earth.

Now this is what our men teach: The power of the keys2 or the authority of the bishops is, according to the gospel, an authority and commission from God to preach the gospel, to forgive and to retain sin, and to administer and handle the sacraments. For Christ sent the apostles out with this commission in John 20: “Just as my Father has sent me, so too I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit; whosever sins you will remit, they shall be remitted for them, and whosever you will retain, they shall be retained for them.”3

Second page of Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

One uses and exercises this power of the keys or of the bishops only by teaching and preaching God’s word and by administering the sacraments to many or individual persons, according to one’s call. For through these activities, eternal things and goods are imparted, not physical ones, namely eternal righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life. There is no other way a person can obtain these goods except through the office of preaching and through the administration of the holy sacraments. For St. Paul says, “The gospel is a power of God to save all who believe in it.”4 Now since the authority of the church or bishops imparts eternal goods and is used and exercised only through the ministry of the Word, it does not anywhere hinder polity and the secular government at all. For secular government is occupied with much different matters than the gospel is. Secular power does not protect the soul; it protects body and property against external forces using the sword and physical penalties.5

Therefore the two governments, the spiritual and the secular, should not be intermixed and jumbled. For the spiritual authority has its commission to preach the gospel and to administer the sacraments, and it should not meddle in some other task. It should not set up and depose kings, should not dissolve or undermine secular law and obedience to the authorities, should not make and compose laws for secular authority concerning secular affairs, just as Christ himself also said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and, “Who has appointed me to be a judge between you?”6 And St. Paul writes to the Philippians in Chapter 3: “Our citizenship is in heaven.” And in his Second Letter to the Corinthians in Chapter 10: “The weapons of our knighthood are not those of the flesh, but powerful for God to destroy the plots and every height that rises up against the knowledge of God.”

Third page of Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

In this fashion our men distinguish the duties of both governments and authorities and tell people to honor both as the highest gifts of God on earth.

But where the bishops have civil government and the sword, they do not have these as bishops by divine right, but it has been given by Roman emperors and kings by human, imperial right, for civil administration of their goods, and it has nothing to do with the ministry of the gospel.

Therefore the episcopal office, according to divine right, is preaching the gospel, forgiving sins, judging doctrine and rejecting doctrines that are contrary to the gospel, and excommunicating from Christian fellowship the godless people whose godless conduct is obvious, not with human authority, but only through God’s word. When this is the case, the parishioners and churches are duty-bound to obey the bishops, according to this saying of Christ in Luke 10: “Whoever listens to you, listens to me.” But where they teach, institute, or establish something contrary to the gospel, in that case we have God’s command not to obey them in Matthew 7: “Watch out for false prophets.” And St. Paul tells the Galatians in Chapter 1: “Even if we or an angel from heaven were to preach to you another gospel than the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” And in the Second Letter to the Corinthians in Chapter 13: “We have no power against the truth, but for the truth.” Likewise: “According to the power that the Lord has given me to make better and not to ruin.” This is also what the religious law in Part 2, [Subject 2,] Question 7 commands in the chapter Sacerdotes [i.e. 8] and in the chapter Oves [i.e. 13].7 And St. Augustine writes in his epistle against Petilianus that people should not even follow the bishops who have been chosen in a regular and orderly way when they are in error or when they teach or establish something contrary to the holy and divine Scriptures.8

Fourth page of Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

But the fact that the bishops have authority and jurisdiction in a number of affairs besides this, like marriage cases and tithing9—they have this by the power of human right. But where the ordinaries are negligent in that capacity, the princes are duty-bound in such cases to pass judgment for their subjects for the sake of peace, regardless of whether they want to or not, in order to prevent discord and great unrest in their countries.

Moreover, it is also disputed whether bishops have power to establish ceremonies in the churches, as well as regulations about food, festivals, and about different orders of ministers. For those who give this authority to the bishops cite this saying of Christ in John 16: “I have much more to say to you, but you cannot bear it now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” They also adduce the example of Acts in Chapter 15, where they forbade blood and strangled meat. They likewise cite that the Sabbath has been changed to Sunday contrary to the Ten Commandments, as they see it, and no example is hyped and cited so much as the changing of the Sabbath, and they thereby wish to preserve the great authority of the church, since it has dispensed with the Ten Commandments and altered something in them.

But this is what our men teach in this question: The bishops do not have power to institute and establish something contrary to the gospel, just as the citations above say and the religious laws teach throughout the Ninth Distinction.10 Now this is clearly contrary to God’s command and word, to make laws or commands with the intention of making satisfaction for sins and obtaining grace by keeping them. For the glory and merit of Christ is sullied when we attempt to earn grace with such regulations. It is also as clear as day that countless human statutes have gained ground in Christendom because of this intention, and in the meantime the doctrine of faith and the righteousness of faith have been completely suppressed. Each new day new festivals, new fasts have been commanded, new ceremonies and new ways to venerate the saints have been instituted in order to earn grace and every good things from God with such works.

Fifth page of Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

Likewise, those who establish human regulations also go against God’s command with them, since they put sin in foods, in observing days and similar things, and thus they burden Christendom with the bondage of the law, as though there had to be a form of worship among Christians for earning God’s grace that were just like the Levitical worship, and that God supposedly entrusted the apostles and bishops with establishing this form of worship, which is what some men write about it. It is also reasonable to believe that a number of bishops have been deceived by the example of the law of Moses. That is why such countless regulations have appeared, for example, that it is a mortal sin when someone does manual labor on a festival day, even if he is not giving offense to others; that it is a mortal sin when someone omits the canonical hours; that some foods defile the conscience; that fasting is a work through which someone can appease God; that the sin in a reserved case is not forgiven, unless the person first seeks out the one who has reserved the case, regardless of the fact that the religious laws do not speak of the reservation of guilt, but of the reservation of church penalties.

Where then do the bishops get the right and power to impose such statutes on Christendom for tying consciences up in knots? For in Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter forbids laying the yoke on the disciples’ necks. And St. Paul tells the Corinthians that they have been given the power to make better and not to ruin.11 Why then do they increase sins with such statutes?

We have clear passages of divine Scripture which forbid establishing such statutes in order to earn God’s grace with them, or as if they were necessary for salvation. Thus St. Paul says to the Colossians in Chapter 2: “So now let no one give you scruples over food or over drink or over appointed days, namely the festivals or new moons or Sabbaths, which are the shadow of the One who was to come, but the body itself is in Christ.” Likewise: “If then you have now died with Christ to the worldly regulations, when then do you let yourselves be taken captive by regulations, as if you were living? They say, ‘You should not touch this,’ ‘You should not eat or drink that,’ ‘You should not handle this,’ even though all of those things get used up, and these are human commands and teachings and have only a show of wisdom.” Likewise St. Paul in Titus 1 openly forbids people to pay attention to Jewish fables and human laws that reject the truth.

Sixth page of Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

Christ himself, in Matthew 15, says the same thing about those who drive people to human commands: “Let them go; they are blind guides of blind people.” And he rejects such worship and says, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted out.”

Now if the bishops have power to burden the churches with countless statutes and to tie consciences up in knots, why then does divine Scripture so often forbid the making and following of human statutes? Why does it call them devil’s doctrines?12 Did the Holy Spirit warn against all of this for no reason?

Therefore since such ordinances that have been established as necessary for appeasing God and meriting grace are contrary to the gospel, it is by no means proper for the bishops to compel such forms of worship. For in Christendom the doctrine of Christian liberty must be retained, namely that the servitude of the law is not necessary for justification, as St. Paul writes to the Galatians in Chapter 5: “So now remain in the liberty with which Christ has liberated us, and do not let yourselves be tied to the yoke of servitude once again.”13 For the chief article of the gospel must ever be preserved, that we obtain the grace of God through faith in Christ, apart from our merit, and do not earn it through worship instituted by humans.

What then should be our position on Sunday and other similar church ordinances and ceremonies? Our men give this answer: The bishops or parsons may make ordinances for the purpose of good order in the church, not for obtaining God’s grace, nor for making satisfaction for sin or binding consciences by making people think that they are necessary forms of worship and that they commit sin when they break them, even when no offense is given. Thus St. Paul prescribed for the Corinthians that their women should cover their heads in the assembly; likewise that the preachers in the assembly should not all speak at the same time, but in an orderly way, one after the other.14

It is fitting for a Christian assembly to keep such ordinances for the sake of love and peace, and to be obedient to the bishops and parsons in those cases and to keep those ordinances insofar as no one scandalizes anyone else, so that there may not be any confusion or disorderly conduct in the church. But they should be kept in such a way that consciences are not burdened because people consider such things to be necessary for salvation and they think that they are committing sin if they break them, even when no offense is given to others, just as no one today says that a woman is committing sin who goes out in public with a bare head, when no offense is given to the people.

Seventh page of Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

The ordinances of Sunday, the Easter celebration, Pentecost and similar celebrations and customs fall into this category. For those who think that the ordinance of Sunday as the Sabbath was established as something necessary are very much in error. For Holy Scripture has done away with the Sabbath and teaches that all the ceremonies of the old law can be discontinued now that the gospel has been revealed. And nevertheless, since it has been necessary to ordain a certain day so that the people know when they should come together, the Christian church has ordained Sunday for that purpose, and they were all the more pleased and eager to make this change in order that the people might have an example of Christian freedom. That way they would know that neither the keeping of the Sabbath nor of any other day was necessary.15

There are many improper disputations about the changing of the law, about the ceremonies of the New Testament, about the changing of the Sabbath, which have all arisen from the false and erroneous idea that people in Christendom must have a form of worship that conforms to the Levitical or Jewish worship, and that Christ has commissioned the apostles and bishops to come up with new ceremonies that are necessary for salvation. These errors have woven themselves into Christianity, since the righteousness of faith has not been clearly and purely taught and preached. Some men dispute about Sunday like this: People have to keep it, even if not by divine right, nevertheless essentially as if it were by divine right. They put forms and measures into place dictating how much work one may do on a festival. What else can such disputations be but snares for the conscience? For although they attempt to moderate and provide some balance for human ordinances, no proper balance or moderation can be found as long as the idea persists and remains that these statutes are necessary. And this idea has to remain when people know nothing of the righteousness of faith or of Christian freedom.

The apostles commanded that people should abstain from blood and strangled meat. But who keeps that now? Yet those who do not keep it are not committing any sin, for the apostles themselves also did not wish to burden consciences with such servitude, but forbade it for a time to prevent scandal. For in this regulation one must pay attention to the centerpiece of Christian doctrine, so that it is not nullified by this decree.

Eighth page of Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

Nearly none of the old canons are kept as they read.16 Many of their regulations continue to fall by the wayside every day, even among those who are the most diligent in observing such statutes. In this matter consciences cannot be counseled or helped unless this moderation is observed: We need to know how to keep such statutes in such a way that people do not regard them as necessary, and that even if such statutes fall out of use, it does no harm to consciences.

But the bishops would easily retain the obedience due them, if they did not insist on the observance of regulations that simply may not be observed without sin. But now they are doing just one thing and forbidding both forms of the Holy Sacrament; they likewise forbid marriage to the clergy; they admit no one until he has first taken an oath that he will not preach this doctrine of ours, even though it is without a doubt in harmony with the gospel. Our churches do not desire that the bishops restore peace and unity to the detriment of their honor and dignity, though it is the bishops’ duty to do even this in cases of necessity. This is all they are asking, that the bishops give up a few unreasonable burdens, which did not even used to exist in the church anyway and were adopted contrary to the practice of ordinary Christian churches. Perhaps there was some good reason for them at first, but they do not make sense in our times.17 It is also undeniable that some regulations have been adopted out of bad judgment. Therefore the bishops should be gracious enough to soften those regulations, since such a change will not do any harm to preserving the unity of Christian churches. For many regulations of human origin have fallen out of use all by themselves over time and are not necessary to keep, as even the papal laws testify. But if this can never be and they cannot be persuaded that human regulations that cannot be kept without sin should be moderated and done away with, then we must follow the apostle’s rule, which commands us to be more obedient to God than to humans.18

St. Peter forbids the bishops from exercising sovereign authority, as if they had the power to force the churches to do whatever they want.19 Now we are not occupied with planning how to take the bishops’ authority away from them, but we are asking and desiring that they would not force consciences to sin. But if they will not do this and despise this request, then they should remember that they will have to give an account to God for it,20 because by such stubbornness on their part they are giving occasion for division and schism, when they should in fact be duly helping to prevent it.

*****

Ninth page of Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord of 1580

These are the chief articles that are considered to be disputable. For although we could have cited many more abuses and further injustice, to avoid prolixity and length21 we have only made mention of the chief ones, from which the others can easily be inferred. For in the past there have been many complaints over indulgences, over pilgrimages, over abuse of the ban. The parsons also had endless quarrels with the monks due to the hearing of confession, burials, sermons on special occasions, and countless other matters besides. We have passed over all of this as best we could and for the sake of forbearance, so that we might note the chief points in these matters that much better. It also should not be thought that anything was said or cited along the way in order to insult or express hatred for anyone. We have only related the points that we have considered necessary to cite and to mention, so that it could be seen from them that much better that nothing has been adopted by us, neither in doctrine nor in ceremonies, that goes against either the Holy Scriptures or ordinary Christian churches. For it has always been obvious and as clear as day that, with all diligence and with God’s help (not to speak boastfully), we have been on guard lest any new and godless doctrine weave its way into, spread, and prevail in our churches.

In keeping with the imperial summons, we have wished to deliver the above-cited articles as a token of our confession and of the doctrine of our men. And if anyone should discover that something is lacking in it, we stand ready to provide further information on the basis of Divine and Holy Scripture.

Your Imperial Majesty’s most submissive and obedient servants,
Johannes, Duke of Saxony, Elector
Georg, Margrave of Brandenburg
Ernst, Duke of Lüneburg
Philipp, Landgrave of Hesse
Hans [Johannes] Friedrich, Duke of Saxony
Franz, Duke of Lüneburg
Wolf[gang], Prince of Anhalt
Burgomaster and Council of Nuremberg
Burgomaster and Council of Reutlingen

(This concludes the Augsburg Confession.)

Notes

1 “The reservation of certain cases” is also simply called “reserved cases” for short. Reserved cases are those where a bishop, archbishop, or the pope reserves the right to absolve certain sins for himself. For instance, if an archbishop reserved absolution for himself in the case of a divorce committed by a king, that king’s priest or even the bishop of the diocese in which the king lived could not absolve him; only that archbishop could. Thus the king would have to first reconcile with the archbishop on the archbishop’s terms before receiving absolution. This practice not only further promoted work-righteousness, but also was little more than a show of power on the part of the church official involved.

2 Rf. Matthew 16:19; 18:15-18. Note that the second reference proves that in the first reference Jesus is not giving the power of the keys only to Peter, but to all who share Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. See also Article 11 and note 2 beneath it, and Article 14 and the notes beneath it.

3 The Latin version adds: “And in Mark 16: ‘Go, preach the gospel to every creature,’ etc.”

4 Rf. Romans 1:16. The Latin version adds: “And Psalm 118 [119] says, ‘Your utterance gives me life.’”

5 The Latin version adds: “The gospel protects souls against impious opinions, against the devil and eternal death.”

6 Rf. John 18:36; Luke 12:14

7 You can read Melanchthon’s references here (type 521 and 522, respectively, in the “Jump to page” field and click Go).

8 Once again, Melanchthon slightly mis-cites his source here. The quote does not come from Augustine’s responses to the letters of Petilianus, a Donatist. (Rf. note 3 under Article 8 for more on the Donatists.) However, the quote does come from Augustine’s book On the Unity of the Church (Chapter 11, par. 28; original Latin on cols. 410-411 here), which he wrote against the Donatists as a whole. This paragraph would be a good one to include, at least in part, in an installation or ordination service. It very clearly delineates pastoral authority, and what is owed to pastors depending on how they exercise their authority.

9 The reference here is not to Christian giving, which is supposed to be voluntary (2 Corinthians 9:7). Melanchthon is talking about the mandatory tithing of the gross proceeds of all land parcels and farms.

10 See Gratian’s Decretum, Part 1, Distinction 9, Chapters 8ff here (type 87 in the “Jump to page” field and click Go).

11 Rf. 2 Corinthians 10:8

12 Rf. 1 Timothy 4:1-3

13 Read Romans 7:1-6 for another aspect of Christian liberty.

14 These examples are found in 1 Corinthians 11:2-6,16 (note that vs. 16 often gets mistranslated); 14:26-40.

15 Note the irony that Melanchthon clearly draws out here. Sunday was voluntarily established as the main day for worship precisely to demonstrate our Christian freedom and that we no longer had to worship on Saturday (Colossians 2:16,17). Since then, however, Sunday has turned into “the New Testament Sabbath” or “the Christian Sabbath” in the eyes of many (rf. the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 21) and consciences have been unnecessarily burdened over the Sunday observance. (This unnecessary burdening of conscience was a main theme of the popular 1981 British film Chariots of Fire, which dramatized the refusal of Eric Liddell, a Scottish participant in the 1924 Olympic Games, to compete on Sunday.)

16 A couple examples from the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 AD) alone:

  • Canon 13: Lest too great a diversity of religious orders lead to grave confusion in the Church of God, we strictly forbid anyone in the future to found a new order, but whoever should wish to enter an order, let him choose one already approved.
  • Canon 16: [Clergymen] shall not attend the performances of mimics and buffoons, or theatrical representations. They shall not visit taverns except in case of necessity, namely, when on a journey. They are forbidden to play games of chance or be present at them. They must have a becoming crown and tonsure and apply themselves diligently to the study of the divine offices and other useful subjects. Their garments must be worn clasped at the top and neither too short nor too long. They are not to use red or green garments or curiously sewed together gloves, or beak-shaped shoes or gilded bridles, saddles, pectoral ornaments (for horses), spurs, or anything else indicative of superfluity.

17 We do well to follow Melanchthon’s lead in humility and not immediately assume that an ancient practice that has since fallen by the wayside was foolish or ridiculous. Unless it is clearly and directly contrary to the Scriptures, we do well to remember that we were not there when it was instituted.

18 Rf. Acts 5:29

19 Rf. 1 Peter 5:1-3

20 Rf. 2 Timothy 4:1; Hebrews 13:17

21 This is a common joke which occurs often in the writings of German theologians. It also manifests itself in this form: “In sum…” followed by several more paragraphs, or even pages, of material. (Note, however, that it is definitely not a joke to them; they truly do not seem to understand the difference between prolixity and brevity.)

Quote of the Week – Grace Means Unearned

The following is taken from Philipp Melanchthon’s Apology (or Defense) of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV (Justification), verses 40 and 41:

Since then no one is able to keep God’s law by his own powers, and all are under sin and deserve to be condemned to eternal wrath and death, we are therefore unable to be freed from sin or to become upright in God’s sight through the law. Instead, forgiveness of sins and righteousness is promised through Christ, who has been given for us to pay for the sins of the world and who is the only Mediator and Redeemer. And this promise does not say that you have grace, salvation, etc. through Christ if you earn it. No, he offers forgiveness of sins purely out of grace, as Paul says, “If [forgiveness of sins] is by works, then it is not grace” [Romans 11:6]. And in another place: “This righteousness that avails before God is revealed apart from law” [Romans 3:21], that is, forgiveness of sins is offered for free.

Source
Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, 2nd ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1955), p. 167,168