Concord #26: Prescriptive/Descriptive

"Concord" is a weekly study of the Lutheran Confessions, where we will take up a topic from the Book of Concord and reflect on what we believe, teach, and confess in the Lutheran Church. The purpose of this series is to deepen readers' knowledge and appreciation for the confessions of the Lutheran Church, and to unite them "with one heart" to confess the teachings of Holy Scripture.

Prescriptive/Descriptive

We have reached a point of division in our review of the Augsburg Confession. The first 21 articles or topics have been about doctrine—articles of faith. What follows are several abuses that have been corrected—practical matters that were either eliminated or reformed. The Augsburg Confession itself makes this distinction. Immediately following the Worship of the Saints, the confession states:

“This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers. This being the case, they judge harshly who insist that our teachers be regarded as heretics. There is, however, disagreement on certain abuses, which have crept into the Church without rightful authority. And even in these, if there were some difference, there should be proper lenity [kindness] on the part of bishops to bear with us by reason of the Confession which we have now reviewed; because even the Canons are not so severe as to demand the same rites everywhere, neither, at any time, have the rites of all churches been the same; although, among us, in large part, the ancient rites are diligently observed. For it is a false and malicious charge that all the ceremonies, all the things instituted of old, are abolished in our churches. But it has been a common complaint that some abuses were connected with the ordinary rites. These, inasmuch as they could not be approved with a good conscience, have been to some extent corrected” (Augsburg Confession XXI.5-9).

Without going into an extensive study of the practices of the medieval Roman Church, it’s hard to make much sense of this little paragraph. The big takeaway is that, just as the doctrine of this confession does not differ from that of the ancient Church, likewise the Lutheran reformers did not get rid of the practices of the ancient Church. Although, it should be noted that practices never have been the same everywhere at all times. However, good practices always conform to right doctrine. Both doctrine and practice are intimately related.

Because the first 21 articles deal with doctrine and the last 7 deal with abuses of practice, some people have also made a distinction between prescriptive and descriptive articles of the Augsburg Confession. Since the first 21 articles deal with matters of doctrine, they are prescriptive—they lay down a rule of faith that must be followed. On the other hand, the last 7 they consider to be descriptive—practical matters that are solved practically, but are not binding on today’s Church. But this is an unnatural division that the Augsburg Confession does not make.

Rather, we should see the entire Augsburg Confession as descriptive. The Lutheran Confessions are not canon law, or rules that must be followed. They are confessions of faith—simply restating what Scripture and the ancient creeds have first said. It describes the faith of the evangelical Lutheran Church. First, the various articles of faith are laid out. Then that faith is put into practice.

In fact, some of the best theology is found in the practical section of the Augsburg Confession. Because theology underlies every practice addressed and every abuse corrected. Next week we will turn to these abuses and see how the theology and faith of the Church of the Augsburg Confession is put into practice.

You can read the Book of Concord at http://www.bookofconcord.org

Rev. Jacob Ehrhard is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven, MO.

Created: August 3rd, 2017