As part of our ongoing series to share information about key Moravian theology and doctrine, we will be excerpting the Rev. Dr. C. Daniel Crews’ study, Confessing Our Unity in Christ: Historical and Theological Background to The Ground of the Unity. Originally written in 2000 and updated twice, this study looks at the theological and historical underpinnings of The Ground of the Unity, one of the Moravian Church’s core doctrinal statements.
Confessing Our Unity was originally published by the Southern Province Archives. We thank Rev. Crews and Richard Starbuck, Southern Province archivist, for permission to excerpt this work.
In this issue, we continue the discussion of the “Old Unity.”
The Confession of 1535 deserves special mention. In a time when further persecution loomed over them, and inspired by the example of the Lutherans at Augsburg in 1530, the Unity compiled a new Confession of Faith to be presented to the king by its members, who were of the nobility. As [Czech historian Rudolf] Rican says:
“The influence of the Augustana [the Augsburg Confes-sion] is clear. This is not a verbal dependence, however, and neither in its contents do the Brethren bind them-selves to the Au-gustana in all respects. Especially lacking here is a condem-nation of other teachings.”1
The first article of the Unity’s 1535 Confession speaks of the Holy Scriptures as their guide. This was true also of their very first confession of faith in 1468,2 and it has generally been Moravian practice to begin doctrinal statements with an avowal of Scripture as the foundation of faith. This is in dis-tinction from the confessional practice of other com-munions. For instance, the Augsburg Confession does not have an article on Scripture per se, though it cites it as authority for various articles and says at the end of the first 21 articles that all that is said in it is grounded on Scripture. Likewise, the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles have separate sections on Scripture, but not at the first of the document.
In content, the Unity’s Confession of 1535 then goes on to speak of God and salvation in Christ, and it affirms the true “spiritual” presence of Christ in the Holy Communion without trying to define it further in metaphysical terms. It is in full agreement with Luther on the cardinal doctrine of salvation through faith, and characteristically, in the next article it stresses very strongly that good works are the necessary fruit of saving faith. It also maintains some older viewpoints of the Unity which might not find favor with Moravians of today, particularly the article which favors celibacy for the clergy.
This Confession of 1535 did not attain its goal of winning royal approval for the Unity, but it did mark our church’s emergence from more or less seclusion to a more public pos-ture, and it remained through the years as the Unity’s great public avowal of its belief. It formed the basis for their later confessions3 and was reprinted by Bishop Comenius (Komensky) in 1662 as part of his attempt to preserve the legacy of the Unity for those who would renew it in the future.4
One final aspect of the old Unity’s doctrinal stance needs to be noted before moving on to developments in the Renewed Unity. This is their concept of the essential, the ministrative and the incidental things. This was extremely important to them, and indeed is a valuable contribution to theological thought. This concept was reflected in their hymns and devo-tional writings. It did not, however, receive the expression in their formal confessions which might have been expected. This is because the confessions were generally prepared for “out-siders” who were used to other modes of expression and who would not have looked upon such expressions with favor even if they understood them.
In short,5 the essentials were more the objective work of God for our salvation, and our living relationship with God and each other, than they were a list of doctrines to subscribe to. On the part of God the essentials for salvation were: the gracious good will of God the Father for our salvation; the meritorious saving work of Christ; and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. On the human side, the essentials were: faith, love, and hope. The ministrative things were those which “ministered” or helped one to the essentials. These included the church, the sacraments, and the Scriptures. The incidentals were such things as: the specifics of church order, particular liturgical forms, or the mode of baptism and the sort of bread used at Holy Communion.
The Unity was perhaps right in anticipating some mis-under-standing, and a word of caution is necessary here. It should not be thought that the ministrative things were down-played in this system or could be considered as unimportant. They were, in fact, the means appointed by God to enable mortals to come to the essentials. It might not go too far to say that the ministerials — the Scriptures, the sacraments, the church — were the indispensable means for our coming to the eternal essentials. As such they were crucial for the Christian life; they were by no means an end in themselves, but the means to our ultimate goal: redemption in our Lord and Savior.
In our next installment, we begin a discussion of Zinzendorf and Moravian Theology.
1 Rican, p. 142f.
2 Schweinitz, p. 158: “The Bible is their norm of faith and rule of practice.”
3 The Unity’s final independent Confession of 1573 is basically the same as that of 1535, but was rewritten in the more refined Latin of the time. See Rican, p. 253f.
4 Rican, p. 388.
5 By far, the best and most comprehensive study of this aspect of the Unity’s theology is Amédeo Molnár’s “The Brethren’s Theology” in Rican, pp. 390-420.
From the April 2017 Moravian Magazine