The Augsburg Confession is a document written in 1530 primarily by the Lutheran Philip Melancthon. It is addressed to the Emperor Charles V and makes a defense for the Lutheran positions on several theological issues. Divided into 28 chapters (or articles), it was designed to appeal to moderate Roman Catholics including, of course, the emperor himself.
After the Diet of Worms in 1521, Martin Luther had been declared a heretic by both pope and emperor. Between 1521 and 1530, there were many troubles in Europe that had occupied the emperor, including a war with France and political battles with the pope, which resulted in an invasion of Rome by the emperor in 1527.
Emperor Charles V was hoping for a more united front to face the threat of Moslem invasions in the eastern part of his empire. His hope was to bring about reconciliation between the Lutheran parts of Germany and the Roman Catholics. He gathered all these parties together at the Imperial Diet of Augsburg in 1530.
On June 25, 1530, Melancthon and others presented the Augsburg Confession to the emperor. Luther was in a nearby castle but could not be present since he was officially still a heretic and thus was an outlaw in the empire.
The confession was signed by many of the German princes. Many of the articles in the Augsburg Confession come from the Marburg Colloquy, a meeting of Lutherans and John Zwingli and some of his followers in 1529, a failed attempt to bring reconciliation between these Protestant parties.
The Confession begins with 21 articles or chapters, which describe the basic beliefs of the Lutherans, belief in the Trinity or triune God, the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, and other definitions that were agreed to mostly by the Catholics. The second portion of the confession deals with the abuses that the Lutherans saw in the Catholic Church. Addressed to the emperor, the second portion begins:
Translated, the Augsburg Confession of faith states, “Inasmuch as our churches dissent from the church catholic in no article of faith but only omit some few abuses which are new and have been adopted by the fault of the times although contrary to the intent of the canons, we pray that Your Imperial Majesty will graciously hear both what has been changed and what our reasons for such changes are in order that the people may not be compelled to observe these abuses against their conscience.
Your Imperial Majesty should not believe those who disseminate astonishing slanders among the people in order to inflame the hatred of men against us.” The second portion then discusses various theological topics including marriage of priests, confession, and monastic vows.
The emperor handed the confession to the Roman Catholic officials and theologians present. Chief among these was Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio from Rome, who with the other theologians composed a rather forceful rejection of the Lutheran positions. The emperor forced them to tone down the document before presenting what is called the Confutation of the Augsburg Confession to the Lutherans on August 3, 1530.
The response by the Lutherans to the confutation was a much longer document, called the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, again written by Melancthon, which deals with the confutation point by point. This was published at the end of April or the beginning of May 1531 and also became an official position of the Lutherans when signed in Smalcald in 1537.
This document was also more forceful in rejecting the Catholic position. The result was a stalemate, which led to various battles and conflicts over the following 25 years until the Peace of Augsburg in 1555.
Was this really a chance to reconcile Protestant and Catholic Christianity? Many historians think that there was at least a reasonable chance. Certainly the emperor desired reconciliation. Melancthon was more of a peacemaker than Luther, and if some of the more moderate Catholics had been able to get the emperor’s ear, perhaps the direction of Western European Christianity would have been different.
Today, the Augsburg Confession is still a foundational document of Lutheran Christianity. In 1575, a group of Lutherans worked to put together the key documents that defined Lutheranism in order to prevent further division.
This book was called the Book of Concord and contained the Augsburg Confession, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, and several other statements of Lutheran belief and doctrine. These still are held as accurate statements of Lutheran theology and practice by most Lutherans.