Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Authority & Essentials

In 1529 the first Protestant council, the Marburg Colloquy, was held. It was called by prince Philip of Hesse who was hopeful that certain doctrinal differences between the two great leaders of the Reformation, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, could be resolved. Phillip’s concern, however, was not solely religious. He felt that a unified Protestant theology would pave the way for a united political front among the Protestant countries allowing for a stronger defense against the Roman Catholic emperor Charles V so he arranged for a meeting of the leading theologians of the Lutheran and Reformed camps at Marburg.

Concerned that direct discussion between Luther and Zwingli (both fiery personalities) might be counterproductive, provision was made to pair each man up with a representative of the other. Philip Melanchthon represented the Lutherans in discussions with Zwingli and John Oecolampadius represented the Zwinglian position in discussions with Luther.

After a couple of days of discussion Luther was asked to draw up a statement of faith so that the two sides could identify precisely where they agreed and where they differed. Luther penned 15 articles of faith and to his surprise the Zwinglians quickly accepted 14 of them with small modifications and partially accepted the 15th. Only a single point of doctrine related to the nature of the presence of Christ in communion stood between the unification of the two main streams of Reformation.

Both sides rejected the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation that through a miracle the elements were transformed into the body and blood of Christ such that the substance of the elements was replaced by the real substance of Christ’s body & blood. The Lutherans held to a form of consubstantiation where although there was no miraculous transformation, the real corporeal substance of the body and blood of Christ was present in, with, and under the elements. The Zwinglians taught that the elements were a memorial feast instituted by the Lord and that Christ was spiritually present with the faithful as they celebrated rather than substantially present in the elements.

The two sides were unable to reach a unified understanding on this issue. Luther became rather agitated insisting that the words of the Lord were plain and meant that the supper literally involved His body. Whenever Oecolampadius tried to explain that such language should be understood metaphorically Luther emphatically repeated the phrase “Hoc Est Corpus Meum!” (this is my body).

Oecolampadius explained that both were in agreement that there was a real presence of Christ in the sacrament and did not understand why Luther insisted that it must be explained as a corporeal presence in the elements themselves. Frustrated, he asked Luther what ultimate difference it made whether or not believers were literally partaking of the substance of Christ. Luther famously responded “I do not know, but if He ordered me to eat dung I would do it”. There was to be no consensus.

Rather than leave with this one point as an issue of open study and consideration a break in fellowship occurred. Due to this issue Luther considered the non-Lutheran reformers “of another spirit” and believed that the Reformed churches were ignoring plain scriptural teaching. Strangely, I am told that years later when Luther read Calvin’s dynamic presence view, which is very similar to the view that Oecolampadius and Zwingli held, Luther was said to have approved of it. If this is true then Marburg has to be one of the most unfortunate moments in Church history.

We are commanded in scripture to contend for the faith and stand on the truth. Doctrinal error is a very serious matter, however, we are also told to be sensitive to the weaker brother, to be gracious, to lift one another up. There is often an inherent tension between these commands that requires a great deal of wisdom to negotiate. Many churches have accepted Augustine’s famous dictum “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”. This seems to be a humble and reasonable approach except that there is the thorny question of who exactly determines what is essential. Often churches consider salvation issues or the collection of doctrines articulated in their creed to be what is essential but what biblical ground is there for recognizing those things as uniquely important? Who decides?

Many see Luther’s inflexibility at Marburg to be an example of dogmatic bullheadedness but Luther recognized that the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is necessarily related to ones understanding of the very nature of Christ. I don't agree with Luther's position on this issue but he is correct that an argument about the presence of Christ in the elements is actually an argument about how the divine and human natures of Christ relate to one another. These discussions of theological details become so vigorous becase of the interconnectiveness of all biblical doctrine.

Obviously there are some understandings that are foundational such as the deity of Christ, the resurrection, imputation etc. and there are other biblical issues that are certainly not worth breaking fellowship over. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “I will not argue with you about whether Adam had a belly button or not”. The problem is that there is a lot of gray area between those extremes and if we are to make distinctions we must have a guideline for determining what is essential and what is non-essential. No two people are going to agree 100% on every issue and yet we are to come together in unity to worship together. When does difference of opinion become disunity?

Some churches, in an attempt to avoid such unpleasant experiences, simply do not define what they consider “essential” and others use rather arbitrary democratic or oligarchic processes. Is there a clear biblical process for establishing that which is essential vs. that which is non-essential? If not, is this power delegated to church leaders?

The only good example I can think of is the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Is it reasonable to assume that the model in Acts 15 is normative for the church for all time? The early church apparently thought so, and usually called ecumenical councils to address serious doctrinal issues, but as we saw at Marburg you can’t always put humpty dumpty back together again.


  1. Counsels like the one back in the day don't apply anymore, there's too many denominations. The only way to settle doctrinal issues is to prayerfully hack it out by the word of God. Ultimately it's not a matter of essentials and non-essentials. When a person hears the gospel and believes by the grace of God it becomes a matter of sanctification. Christ Jesus gave some to be preachers and teachers to edify and equip the saints for every good work. Eventually they will grow in the knowledge of God. But some might say you must believe in certain doctrines in order to be saved. You can't say you're a Christian and deny the deity of Christ. True, but those elected by God are given the Spirit of truth. They will come to understand the deity Jesus Christ and much more.

    The councel in Acts 15 was called because certain men taught the gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. How did the counsel work it out? They appealed to scripture. The letter that was sent with Paul and Barnabas was not a model for essential doctrines. It was letter of authority dealing with a certain issue. I have yet to find where the Bible teaches there are essentials and non-essentials. If anything, the episode in Acts gives a model on how to deal with problems in the church. The idea there are essential and non- essentials doctrines is false and should be rejected. It's done more to divide and retard the body of the Christ than anything. It promotes false unity and doesn't do much for correcting a brother out of the way. He believes in baptismal regeneration, so what of it? As long as he believes the essentials we have unity? Luther was right, if God said to eat dung I would do it. I'm just glad it's not part of the 10 commandments.

  2. NFI- I understand where you are coming from. The concept of a canon within the canon or a subset of truths that are more important than others can undermine the authority of the Word and the functioning of the body. The fact is, however, that sincere Christians do disagree on a number of issues. At what point are the differences significant enough to break fellowship over or to begin a formal process of rebuke?