Reformation and Confessions

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Conditions in the sixteenth century were ripe for the composition of confessions. The publications of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other Reformation leaders had brought momentous theological questions to the fore. When entire communities, or just the leaders, turned to their teachings, an immediate demand arose for uncomplicated yet authoritative statements of the new faith. The leading Reformers were also deeply involved in the day - to - day life of the churches where they sensed the uneasiness of the people, whether at the abuses of Rome or at their own innovations. And they early on saw the necessity for brief theological summaries that all could understand.

In addition, the very nature of the Reformation and the very character of the sixteenth century greatly stimulated the urge to write confessions. The Reformers posed Scripture as the ultimate authority for all of life, even if this undercut received Catholic tradition. They spoke of the priesthood of believers and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, in spite of the fact that these teachings called the pronouncements of Rome's infallible magisterium into question. The Reformers also challenged Catholic influence in the state. They proposed a new reading of history to support their own push for reform. And they had a passion for restoring the NT purity of Christian belief and practice. Yet every assault on an established belief and every challenge to a traditional practice called for a rationale, a concise statement of the reasons for change.

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It was not, however, merely in the religious sphere that change prepared the way for newer confessions of faith. Europe in general was passing through a period of rapid evolution. Virtually every support for traditional Roman Catholic belief was then under fire. If the Reformers challenged Catholic interference in the state and Catholic involvement in the economy, so too did monarchs of the new nation - states question the church's traditional political role, and the burgeoning class of merchants challenged its accustomed authority in the world of trade. If Luther and Calvin called upon Rome to rethink its interpretation of Scripture, so too did leaders of the Renaissance challenge other intellectual traditions in art, political theory, literature, and history. If the Reformation raised troubling questions in theology, so too had several generations of academicians raised troubling issues in philosophy. In short, the world of the sixteenth century needed new statements of Christian belief not just to reorient Christian life, but to reposition Christianity itself within the forces of early modern Europe.

The great outpouring of confessions in the first century and a half of Protestantism performed a multitude of functions. Authoritative statements of Christian belief enshrined the new ideas of the theologians, but in forms that could also provide regular instruction for the common faithful. They lifted a standard around which a local community could rally and which could make plain the differences with opponents. They made possible a regathering of belief and practice in the interests of unity, even as they established a norm to discipline the erring. And for Catholics, the writing of confessionlike statements made it possible to discriminate between acceptable modifications in its ancient faith and unacceptable deviations from its traditional norms.

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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