Catholicism History

Impressions of “Testing the Boundaries: Windows to Lutheran Identity,” by Charles P. Arand

Testing the Boundaries is an intellectual history of the Lutheran churches in America. It’s most similar to Wrestling the Angel — the Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, and Humanity, as well as The Orthodox Christian Church, by Peter Bouteneff. It is unlikely anyone will be converted to Lutheranism because of Arand’s work. But it is very likely that if you read it, you will understand Lutheranism in America better.

Testing the Boundaries is also parallel to Joseph Ratzinger’s Principles of Catholic Theology. Arand and Ratzinger often described the same events or documents in the same manner. Both Ratzinger and Arand agree that Luther as a man is not particularly relevant to Lutheranism as a faith. Martin Luther was a professor of theology, and Lutherans regard him as a sort of church father. Several times, Arand quotes thinkers who talk of the Church development in the first several centuries, plus the 16th century, with no legitimate development of doctrine in between. Thus, while Lutheran popularizers can emphasize the drama of Luther’s “Ninety-five theses, and Catholics may look suspiciously on Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies*, neither of these are particularly useful for understanding what the Lutheran Churches actually teach or believe.

While in Lutheran popular imagination Luther can be presented as a type of new Christ, speaking out against the corrupt religious authorities of the day, a better analogy would be Origen. Foundationally important to what was to come. But not a saint, and sometimes uncomfortably close to being a heretic.

The Lutheran Confession(s) of Faith

Church documents often accepted by Lutherans are either the contents of or a subset of, The Book of Concord.

These “Lutheran Confessions” begin with basic texts that are universally accepted by Christians

  • Apostles Creed
  • Nicene Creed
  • Athanasian Creed

The Confessions then continue through the Unaltered Augsburg Confession and may continue for several other documents, possibly concluding with the Formula of Concord. But there is no unity here. The Church of Denmark accepts the Augsburg Confession and Luther’s Small Catechism for instance, while some Lutheran communities accept more and others less.

The tone of these additional texts is all over the place. Luther’s Smalcald Articles is generously described as hyperbolic:

It is nothing else than the devil himself, because above and against God he urges [and disseminates] his [papal] falsehoods concerning masses, purgatory, the monastic life, one’s own works and [fictitious] divine worship (for this is the very Papacy [upon each of which the Papacy is altogether founded and is standing]), and condemns, murders and tortures all Christians who do not exalt and honor these abominations [of the Pope] above all things. Therefore, just as little as we can worship the devil himself as Lord and God, we can endure his apostle, the Pope, or Antichrist, in his rule as head or lord. For to lie and to kill, and to destroy body and soul eternally, that is wherein his papal government really consists, as I have very clearly shown in many books.
Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles IV: Of the Papacy, 1537

while the Formula of Concord is scholastic in its tone, in the style of St. Thomas Aquinas:

Since the Law was given to men for three reasons: first, that thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men [and that wild and intractable men might be restrained, as though by certain bars]; secondly, that men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins; thirdly, that after they are regenerate and [much of] the flesh notwithstanding cleaves to them, they might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life, a dissension has occurred between some few theologians concerning the third use of the Law, namely, whether it is to be urged or not upon regenerate Christians. The one side has said, Yea; the other, Nay.
Jakob Andrea et al, Formula of Concord: The Third Use of the Law: The Principle Question in this Controversy, 1576

Neither of these approaches is presently popular in academic theology in either Lutheran or Catholic circles, though both have origins in styles of Catholic apologetics.

Arand’s book outlines four basic theories of the Confessions and applies subsequent developments of the Lutheran church in America to these traditions. At their root, these traditions come from one of two basic assumptions: either the Augsburg Confession was intended to be a reiteration of the Canons of the Second Synod of Orange, and presents no new theology, or that it is the beginning of a long set of documents, and is incompatible with Catholic theology as practiced at the time.

The Augsburg Confession as the Reiteration of the Second Synod of Orange

The first, associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), is to focus on the Augsburg Confession as an experiential reiteration of the Second Synod of Orange. That is, the detailed scholastic theology of the Formula of Concord, and the anger in the Smalcald Articles, are both considered “witnesses” to the faith in the Lutheran community at the time. Rather, the Augsburg Confession itself is the actual statement of faith and should be read as the experience of a sinner returning to Christ. This approach, with its emphasis on the Catholic origins of the text, is a natural bridge to both the Catholic Church and other apostolic traditions. Since the writing of Testing the Boundaries, the ELCA and many non-German Lutheran Churches now have full communion with the Anglican Church and also with “Old Catholics“, partially as a consequence of this view.

In this view, the Augsburg Confession itself is largely a reiteration of the Canons of the Second Synod of Orange, which describe beliefs elsewhere labeled as God Alone, Faith Alone, and Grace Alone:

If anyone maintains that God awaits our will to be cleansed from sin, but does not confess that even our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit, he resists the Holy Spirit himself who says through Solomon, “The will is prepared by the Lord” (Prov. 8:35, LXX), and the salutary word of the Apostle, “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism-if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). For those who state that the faith by which we believe in God is natural make all who are separated from the Church of Christ by definition in some measure believers.

If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).
2nd Synod of Orange 4-6

The parallel section of the Augsburg Confession introduces these critical concepts in the same way:

Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.

That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.

They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Ghost comes to men without the external Word, through their own preparations and work

Also they teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: “When ye shall have done all these things, say: ‘We are unprofitable servants.'” Luke 17, 10. The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says: “It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone.”
Augsburg Confession 4-6

Other parts of the Augsburg Confession also agree with Catholic thought, in ways that may surprise some Catholics. For instance, the Lutheran Augsburg Confession holds that naked faith, which is to say mere belief in God, is not what is meant by faith:

Men are also admonished that here the term “faith” does not signify merely the knowledge of the history, such as is in the ungodly and in the devil, but signifies a faith which believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history—namely, this article: the forgiveness of sins, to wit, that we have grace, righteousness, and forgiveness of sins through Christ. Now he that knows that he has a Father gracious to him through Christ, truly knows God; he knows also that God cares for him, and calls upon God; in a word, he is not without God, as the heathen. For devils and the ungodly are not able to believe this article: the forgiveness of sins. Hence, they hate God as an enemy, call not upon Him, and expect no good from Him. Augustine also admonishes his readers concerning the word “faith,” and teaches that the term “faith” is accepted in the Scriptures not for knowledge such as is in the ungodly but for confidence which consoles and encourages the terrified mind.

Furthermore, it is taught on our part that it is necessary to do good works, not that we should trust to merit grace by them, but because it is the will of God.
Augsburg Confession 20

Likewise, the Augsburg Confession emphasizes that good works are required. Not for our salvation, but because of God’s will. Catholics will immediately recognize this as Marian receptivity: desiring what God wills, when God wills it, because God wills it — and not because of looked-for personal gain. In the past I’ve been disturbed by the mercenary attitude adopted by some protestant evangelizers, believe so you can get to Heaven, in other words, do some mental work for your personal gain, without helping anyone else in the process. That is not the logic of the Augsburg Confession, at least for those Lutheran traditions that emphasize the Catholic origins of the text.

The Augsburg Confession as the First Part of the Lutheran Confession

A second approach, associated with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS), is to focus on the entirely of the Book of Concord, starting with the Augsburg Confession, and including Luther’s Large and Small Catechisms, Luther’s Smalcald Articles, the Formula of Concord, and a few other documents. These are viewed as Marian “yes”‘s to the faith revealed in the Scripture, the appropriate response of the church to what is given by the Bible — thus they are not themselves scriptural or inspired but are the correct reaction to inspired Scripture. These texts are believed to describe the objective reality of the Divine, and its relationship to our world. They function analogously to accepted and historical Canons in the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, while the Roman Catholic and LCMS views differ much more in substance, they share more common epistemological and methodological assumptions about how one can understand what another truly believes about theology.

In this view, while legitimate sacraments continued to be performed, the practice and beliefs of Christianity were largely replaced by the local traditions of Rome, expressed through an increasingly Roman and decreasingly Christian “Catholic church.” Church documents, even from an early age, are generally unhelpful in understanding what true Christianity is, because of the great filter and censor of Roman church apparatus for more than a millennium. The interpretations of the Book of Concord should, in general, be seen to be in opposition to Catholic teaching, and not to be revised or reworded by subsequent Church councils or subscriptions. They are infallible, not because they are anything new, but because they contain thoughts and theology as old as Scripture.

Arand (himself part of the LCMS) ends his texts on a note looking askance at the chance of reconciliation between the Lutheran and Catholic churches. Regarding the increased Catholic interest in the Augsburg Confession, the author positively describes a scholar who

rejects the hermenutical approach implicit in the methodology of achieving agreement by examining the Augustana [Augsburg Confess] article by article, which, in his view, is a traditional argument with a long history of ecumenical disaster. He points to the Committee of Fourteen, which attempted to reconcile the Confessio Augustana with the [Catholic Augsburg] Confutation, as a “classic” case of this style and its failure. Its Achilles’ heel lay in the treating of theological statements as if they were independence of the doctrine of justification by setting the formula, “justified by faith,” alongside the other articles of faith that divide the two parties and then attempt to ascertain whether or not they could be understood in a manner that is acceptable to all. This leads to the participants to embark upon what Jenson calls “formula negotiation,” in which each party adjusts their formulas for each other. But with sufficient skill, any formula could be understood and interpreted correctly. Charles Arand, Testing the Boundaries, pp. 261-262

That is, reconciling the texts of the Augsburg Confession and contemporaneous Catholic documents would be like reconciling the Nicene Creed with the Qur’anic Rejection of it in The Women. With skill, it might be done. But only with violence to the meaning of both sides.

If the Augsburg Confession is indeed a reiteration of the Second Synod of Orange, the “doctrine of justification” is indeed one of many areas of agreement. A few years after the publication of Testing the Boundaries the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was jointly signed by Rome’s Pontifical Council of the Promotion of Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation, a body that includes the ELCA but not the LCMS. The statement, subsequently joined by the World Methodist Council and the World Communion of Reformed Churches, effectively interprets the Augsburg Confession along the lines of the Second Orange Synod, with additional space given to mapping subsequent terminological developments between the Protestant and Catholic sides. To the LCMS and others who include the Smalcald Article, the Formula of Concord, and others as church documents, this threatens to cleave the Lutheran church into two.

This leads to a dilemma that Arand uses to close Testing the Boundaries.

The question of Lutheran identity has always been tied to its confessional writings, perhaps more so than any theological tradition that emerged from the 16th-century Reformation. The confessional writings have always supplied the reason d’etre for the continued existence of Lutheranism.
Charles Arand, Testing the Boundaries, pg. 264

The LCMS position is thus this: is the Augsburg Confession is a Catholic document, then Lutheranism would just be Catholicism.


In Principles of Catholic Theology, Joseph Ratzinger noted that Protestant thinkers tend to have a well-developed sense of salvation history, while Catholic thinkers tend to be more fluent in ontology. If that is true, the success of the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith is only a half-way mark. It may address the ontological concerns that separate most Lutherans and Catholics, but not the concerns in salvation history. We have been separated for 500 years. There must be a parable in that, waiting for its conclusion.

Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest.
Luke 22:24

Similar Posts

6 thoughts on “Impressions of “Testing the Boundaries: Windows to Lutheran Identity,” by Charles P. Arand
  1. I am not a member of the LCMS but am an orthodox Lutheran. With all respect I would define our actual position as saying that the Augsburg Confession is a catholic document, as opposed to a Roman Catholic document. Namely, Roman Catholic and catholic are two different and often opposite things.

  2. SN, thank you so much for your comment!

    Can you say a little more about the difference? If you could, I would rephrase your response in a way that hopefully, you would agree with. If I am not able to do that, that would reveal a gap in my understanding. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *