David B Hunsicker

Ecclesia en Exodus Blog

Thoughts on Christianity and the Church after Christendom.

Refo500 Part 4: The Smalcald Articles

Book of Concord, 1580 edition.

Book of Concord, 1580 edition.

When Pope Paul III (1534-1549) called for a council in Mantua, the members of the Smalkaldic League, namely John Frederick I and Phillip of Hesse, were weary to accept an invitation, worrying that the theological reform they nurtured would be suppressed. Although he ultimately declined the invitation, John Frederick prepared by asking Martin Luther to prepare a summary of theological points that the reformers could not compromise in any theological reconciliation with Rome.

Luther prepared a list of articles and they were subsequently debated in Smalcald. Luther himself could not be at Smalcald due to health issues. When the league decided against attending the pope's council, Luther subsequently revised and published the Smalcald Articles in 1538. Due to his ill health, it is possible that Luther believed this would be his last chance to clarify his theology. By 1546 the articles were considered normative for "Lutheran" theology, and in 1580 they were enshrined in the Lutheran confessional tradition when they were included in the Book of Concord.

Smalcald is divided into three sections. The first section is brief and affirms the Nicene Creed. The second section is the meat of the text and includes articles explicitly arguing for Luther's understanding of justification by grace through faith alone. The third and final section specifically addresses ecclesiological concerns as they arise from the main themes of the second section. Here we see Luther's clear emphasis on the proclamation of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercising of the keys.s


Part One

Part One is a very short and simple summary of the Creedal tradition, at times clearly echoing the Nicene, and at other points the Athanasian. At the end it invokes the Athanasian and the Apostles', while also citing Luther's own Shorter Catechism, all as reliable and trustworthy expressions of Christian belief. It ends with acknowledgement that both the Lutherans and the Roman Catholic church hold these beliefs in common. It is so brief, I will simply reproduce it here:

1. That Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three distinct persons in one divine essence and nature, is One God, who created heave and earth, etc.
2. That the Father was begotten by no one, the Son was begotten by the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.
3. That neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit, but the Son, became a human being.
4. That the Son became a human being in this way: he was conceived by the Holy Spirit without male participation and was born of the pure, holy Virgin Mary. After that, he suffered, died, was buried, descended into hell, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God. In the future he will come to judge the living and the dead, etc., as the Apostles' and the Athanasian Creeds and the common children's catechism teach.
These articles are not matters of dispute or conflict, for both sides confess them. Therefore it is not necessary to deal with them at greater length now (The Annotated Luther, Vol. 2, 427-428).


Part Two

The second part includes four lengthy articles that represent the main issues that Luther has with the Roman church and are, therefore, the points that he believed could not be conceded or compromised in any conciliar attempt at reconciliation.

1. Justification by Faith Alone

Namely, that Christ's death is an atoning sacrifice for sin and that faith in this alone is the means by which we are justified. Luther writes, "Nothing in this article can be conceded or given up" (429). Then, in a common polemical move, Luther associates the pope with the devil, both of whom must be vigorously refused on this point.

2. The Roman Mass is an Abomination

In its form, Luther believed the Mass to distort Christ's work on the cross. It claimed instead, that it was the priest who performed the Mass who offered the forgiveness of sins. For Luther, this meant that Christ's work was obscured while the human priest's work was elevated. At the center of the Mass is the Eucharist, and Luther believed that there were better ways to administer the Eucharist (he will say more about this in Part Three). This included Luther's concerns regarding the use of the Mass to acquire "merit" as a means to do penance for sin and to improve one's posthumous station in purgatory Some of the ways that the Mass was distorted, according to Luther, are related to the economy of merit and penance itself. This includes the purchasing of private Masses, performing Masses for the dead, pilgrimages, monasticism, relics, indulgences, and prayers to saints. (I wrote about how penance, purgatory, indulgences, and the like, functioned in the church of Luther's time here).

3. Monastic Reform

Monasticism and the clerical orders robbed the church of servants and created a two-tier vision of the Christian life where the monastic life was considered holier. While he does not call for the complete abolition of monasticism, he clearly intends that monks and nuns should leave the monasteries and serve the church, the government, and the home (Luther's three orders of creation). Failure to serve the church results in a misconception among the laity that the lives of monastics are holier and purer expressions of the Christian life.

4. Papal Authority

What would a Luther tract be without a swipe at the Pope?! Particularly, Luther challenges the assumption that the Pope is the head of the church.  Jesus Christ alone is the head of the church. The pope is merely a brother Christian. The papacy itself has no biblical warrant and is not a part of the early church's polity. Further, the Pope's claim to authority turns people away from Christ, the true head of the church, suggesting that the church would do better to remind the Pope that he is merely one bishop among many.


Part Three

In the final part, Luther addresses a series of issues related to the Christian Life.

1. Sin

In general, Luther affirms original sin. Then, he lists a number of actions that are the "fruits" of original sin. These sins are listed in two groupings, the former relating to the first table of the decalogue (sins against God) and the latter relating to the second table (sins against neighbor).

Original sin is so pervasive, Luther argues, that it must be believed to be true because attempts to understand it result in further error. In particular, he is speaking about theologians who contend that postlapsarian humanity retains free will to sin or not to sin (see previous post about free will).

2. The Law

For Luther, the first use of the law is that it curbs sin by the threat of punishment and the promise of grace. The second use, however, is that it reveals humanity's sinful nature and its total depravity. Thus, it leads sinners to the reality that they are utterly incapable of being or doing good.

3. Repentance

The law leads to true repentance, leading the sinner to the point of despair so that they can truly hear the gospel. True repentance, unlike the false penance of the merit system (see post on indulgences for clarity), comes as a response to the gospel proclamation.

4. The Gospel

For Luther (like Augustine before him), the gospel is proclaimed: first, in the church's preaching; second, in the administration of the sacraments; and third, in the exercising of the keys.

5. Baptism

Baptism is "God's word in the water". It is not the water itself which exercises a spiritual authority but the Word that is added to it. We baptize infants because they too belong to the promise of the gospel.

6. Eucharist

Luther affirms real presence; however, he does not affirm transubstantiation. Besides the metaphysical difficulties entailed, it seems proper to scripture that the bread and wine remains bread and wine at the last supper.

7. The Keys

The keys is the term used to describe the church's authority to bind and loose sin. For Luther, it means calling Christians to accountability when they err. A church that does not hold its members accountable is not a true church for Luther.


Beyond these seven points, Luther further treats confession, excommunication, ordination, clergy marriage, and monastic vows. One further substantial section is worth mentioning, however. That is the section on justification and work.

13. Justification and Good Works

Good works are a part of the Christian life AFTER faith, repentance, and grace. Even then, good works are accompanied by sin because humans are sinners by nature. Even so, when performed by the Christian, they are not counted as sin, but actually considered good on account of Christ. Good works are the fruits of faith, and therefore demonstrate the faith that is already present. Where good works are absent, there is no true faith.