Professor Daniel Deutschlander often told his students that every Lutheran pastor should read Martin Chemnitz’ Examination of the Council of Trent (at least the first volume) every now and then—just to ensure that he is still a Lutheran.
A couple weeks ago I finished reading part II of Chemnitz’ monumental work, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. As Deutschlander says, “It’s so Lutheran!” The Examen is a Lutheran response to the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, which began in 1545 and was in many ways a response to the Lutheran Reformation. Many of the decrees of the Council are specifically condemning the teachings of the Lutherans. In other places, they continue to group the Lutherans together with the Anabaptists and other radical reformers. However, the main opponent seems to be the Lutheran teaching. The format goes like this: “If anyone says…let him be condemned (anathema sit).” Many have said that if you removed the anathemas from the decrees, you generally have a good statement of Lutheran teaching.
This second volume deals with the Sacraments. It first deals in a general way with the Sacraments, especially with the fact that the Roman Catholics insist on the number seven, and Chemnitz maintains that no matter how you define sacrament, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper stand out as distinct from all others. Then, Chemnitz works through each of the so-called seven sacraments and examines the doctrines and practices which the council commends and condemns.
One of the things that makes this work so brilliant is the way Chemnitz not only deals with the false assertions of the Council, but he manages to present the true, orthodox Lutheran teaching on each of these doctrines. And just because the Lutherans did not maintain seven sacraments does not mean that they had no teaching or practice concerning confession and absolution, ordination, consolation for the sick and dying, confirmation, and marriage.
That said, I think that many Lutherans would be surprised to read the way Chemnitz describes the way “our churches” practice. It appears that Lutheran practice and piety today has been shaped much more by American Protestantism than by the Lutheranism which Chemnitz describes.
Additionally, it always amazes me just how familiar men like Chemnitz were with the church fathers. And then, it strikes me that Chemnitz considers them worth listening to. The Council of Trent regularly made appeal to antiquity and tradition, and repeatedly Chemnitz shows that true antiquity was not what the Tridentine fathers were claiming. Many of the “ancient customs” to which Trent referred were not that ancient, or their writings were taken out of context, or the cited statements were exceptions to normal practice. History was on the side of the Lutherans.
But I don’t know anyone in Lutheran circles today who has this kind of knowledge of the church fathers—not even Seminary professors. And I know many more Lutherans (pastors, even) who wouldn’t particularly care. It is not as though we take our doctrine from the fathers, but I think Chemnitz (and many others) would make the point that they should be listened to. For me, reading more Chemnitz is a start down that path. I have just started reading Chemnitz’ Enchiridion, in which I’m finding much of the same stuff—brilliant. Definitely must-reads for every pastor.
Here’s a page where I started posting some quotes as I was reading: http://caauwejw.tumblr.com/