Carl Braaten on the Confessional Principle

Lutheran churches have stressed the confessional principle more than the Reformed and the Radical Protestant branches of the Reformation.  Yet the confessional principle has been a constant source of controversy in world Lutheranism, not least in the United States.  The right wing appeal to the confessional principle to exclude all new developments in modern theology.  Committed to a theology of repristination, it lifts up the Book of Concord, sometimes coupled with seventeenth-century scholasticism, as the golden age, creating the once-for-all model of what theology must be.  Here doctrines become laws, creating a climate of doctrinal legalism in the church, snuffing out the freedom which is the church’s birthright from the gospel.

The other extreme, the heritage of liberalism, strives to dissolve the confessional principle of theology.  One form of this non confessional attitude goes behind the confessional writings of the church to the heroic faith of the young man Luther, making his image into an object of hero worship.  Much of modern Luther research was inspired by the desire to undercut the authority of orthodox confessionalism, in the hope of salvaging Luther from Lutheranism, in order to gain leverage in the clash between liberalism and orthodoxy.  Another form of the anti confessional approach reaches back to the Bible, ironically turning the confessional principle of sola scriptura against itself, as a principle of self-dissolution.  The pietistic heritage had a strong biblicist tendency, joined with a kind of anti-intellectualism that looked upon dogmas and doctrines with suspicion.  Each believer with Bible in hand had a right to his or her own private interpretation, pitting the Spirit against the collective consciousness of the community expressed in its confessional teachings.

Christian Dogmatics, 51.


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