A So-Called Warning

A while back I saw a quote from someone – not a member of the LCMS – who used the term “so-called Third Use of the Law.” Of course, I don’t expect non-LCMS people to confess the Formula of Concord properly – if they did, they would be in (or at least in fellowship with) the LCMS. It was published in a book of Law-Gospel dialogues with the LCMS. Obviously there is a long way to go in those discussions.

We don’t get to choose which part of the Formula of Concord is correct. Are there parts that maybe could have been phrased better? I’m not saying those don’t exist. But, phrased poorly or well, it is our confession. If you don’t want it to be your confession, then you need not be a member of the LCMS. It has been a lot of years since the church ordained men at the point of a sword.

But you can’t just relegate sections of the Formula of Concord to “so-called” status because you feel like it. Even if you can demonstrate that Luther never used the term, or preferred another term, that’s irrelevant. Luther is not the pope of the Lutherans. His writings must be held up to and examined in the light of Holy Scripture just like anyone else. Some of them are exemplary (Galatians Commentary). Others are weaker (Romans Commentary). Some are execrable (even “old and grumpy” isn’t an excuse. Seriously, what was he thinking!)

Our confession is not “Luther’s writings” it is “The Book of Concord (1580)”. I wish they had included the admonition of confession from the Large Catechism in the 1580 edition. They didn’t. And, like it or not, they included an article on “The Third Use of the Law” that never – not even once – uses the term “so-called”. Neither does our confession subsume the Third Use under the First and Second Uses, or consider it properly only an application of those uses to the life of the Christian. I don’t care what Froderick Stumpenfeldt wrote about it in his magisterial treatise of 1799. I don’t care what some hotshot doctoral student at Cambridge has shown about the differences between Melanchthon and Luther in describing the use of the Law. I care what our confession says using words. If Stumpenfeldt’s work helps to understand those words according to their plain meaning, if Luther or Melanchthon helps to understand those words according to their plain meaning, by all means, enlighten me.

But do not – DO NOT ON PENALTY OF MAKING FALSE PROMISES BEFORE GOD – freely make as your confession the Book of Concord, and then expend your intellectual energies making that confession of no account by saying that the Formula does not mean what the words clearly mean. Going against your own conscience is neither safe nor open to you. But neither should lying about what you really believe teach and confess before the throne of God on the day of judgment be a legitimate method.

If “so-called” is our understanding of the Third Use, I do wonder what other articles of the Formula may be relegated to that status. Can we call it the “So Called Doctrine of Original Sin”? Perhaps because that is covered in the Augustana, we should leave it. That would be best, because otherwise we allow “The So-Called Lord’s Supper”. But even if we hold to those articles also covered by the Augustana, we can still end up with such dangerous teachings as “So-called Free Will”, “So called Righteousness of Faith”, “So Called Adiaphora”, “So Called Election”, and (my personal favorite) “So Called Person of Christ.”

In this case, we may as well begin calling it the “So Called Formula of Concord”, and the “So Called Book of Concord.”

Let’s stick to what the book says. And let’s keep everything Quia. “So-Called Quia” sounds a lot like Quaetanus. Which is a fancy way of saying “Not quite”. And “Not quite” confessing the truth of God’s Word as it is contained in the Book of Concord is neither safe nor open to those who take seriously the Word of Holy Scripture.

To put it another way, “Let’s no go there.”


If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy reading the Large Catechism. If you’d like a help for that, might I suggest “What Every Christian Must Know: Outlines of Luther’s Large Catechism“.

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