Why Do Lutherans ‘Apologize’ ?

Someone unfamiliar with Lutheran lore may be amused (shocked?) to find that one of our most important writings is titled:  “The Apology to the Augsburg Confession.”   Holy anachronism!  Here’s an example of not one, but two words (‘confession’ and ‘apology’) where today’s common usage isn’t at all what was originally meant!

To explain, we need to start with the Augsburg Confession – a document that was presented to Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, on June 23, 1530 in the city of Augsburg, Germany.  The occasion was a special assembly (Diet) that he had called in an attempt to restore unity of religion across his empire.  This was nine years after the Diet of Worms (an assembly in the ancient German city of Worms) where Martin Luther had courageously refused to recant his writings protesting the Pope’s sale of indulgences and other abuses.  As a consequence, Luther had been branded a heretic and criminal, excommunicated, and sentenced to death (if captured).  But in those intervening years, the reform movement that Luther had precipitated had been growing rapidly, was now supported by most of Northern Germany, and was taking root elsewhere.  In the meantime, more radical reformers had also come forward who rejected traditional Christian teachings about Baptism and Holy Communion.  All the religious wrangling was a huge problem for Charles V because his empire was being threatened from the East by the Muslim armies of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.  In his vulnerable condition he was also worried that France with the support of the Pope might decide that this was a good time to grab some of his territory.  So Charles was hoping to get all the princes of his empire to agree to suppress the Protestants (the name now being used to designate anyone protesting practices of the Roman Catholic Church) and unite against the Turks.  It didn’t work out that way.

Instead, the Protestant princes boldly defied the Emperor’s wishes by insisting that they would not agree to religious conformity for the sake of political expediency.  The Confession (statement of belief) that Luther’s followers had prepared and presented at Augsburg attempted to lay out clearly what they believed, and how it differed from both Roman Catholic teachings, as well as those of the Reformed, Anabaptist, and more radical reformers that Lutherans felt had gone too far in rejecting traditional doctrine.  So the Augsburg Confession is an early and clear description of what Lutherans believe – certainly NOT a confession of wrongdoing!

About three months later, a reply came back from Emperor Charles in the form of a document called the Papal Confutation that attacked (and misrepresented) the Augsburg Confession, and set a deadline for the princes to back down “or else.”   Encouraged from afar by Martin Luther (who was “laying low” with a price on his head) the princes refused to cave in and commissioned their own reply.  A bizarre aspect to this whole proceeding is that a written copy of the Confutation was never made available to them (it wouldn’t actually be published for another 43 years!) so it was only because they had recorded a careful transcription when it was read to them that they knew the details of the heresies they were accused of!  Working from this transcript, Philip Melanchthon (Luther’s fellow professor at the University of Wittenburg) drafted a detailed rebuttal of the false accusations made by the Confutation. The resulting document, known as the Apology to the Augsburg Confession (‘apology’ is from a Greek word, meaning ‘defense of’) was delivered to the Emperor in reply to his ultimatum.  Luther had no direct part in the writing, but his insistence on the pure Biblical teaching of justification (forgiveness) “by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone” forms the core of Melanchthon’s rebuttal.

So, the bottom line is that The Apology to the Augsburg Confession can be described as “the defense of the statement of Lutheran beliefs originally delivered at Augsburg.”   Whew!   Hope that explains things!  But no matter WHAT you call it, this document still remains one of the most detailed and important statements of Lutheran doctrine.  To this day, Lutheran Pastors around the world are required to affirm both the Augsburg Confession and its Apology as a condition of their ordination.

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