Moravian Church in North America

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Confessing Our Unity in Christ: Studying the historical and theological background to The Ground of the Unity

072017moraviandoctrine1As 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 with “Later Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Developments.”

Later Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Developments

Following the death of Zinzendorf in 1760, the General Synods of 1764 and 1769 were too busy fashioning a system of government for the church and meeting the huge financial debt which had accrued to do much in the way of doctrinal formulations. Likewise, the General Synod of 1775 dealt with constitutional matters, unfortunately increasing the centralization of church government in the Unity Elders Conference in Germany at just the wrong time for expansion in America, where the winds of independence were gaining popular support.

However, this General Synod of 1775 also dealt with matters of doctrine and formulated statements in its official Results (Verlaß) which provided the basic substance for Moravian doctrinal statements for the better part of the next 200 years. The 1775 Synod devoted many pages to an exposition of doctrine, but said that our “chief axiom” is (to quote the English translation of the General Synod three-quarters of a century later): “That whoe’er believeth in Christ’s redemption/May find free grace, and a complete exemption/From serving sin.”1 How Zinzendorfian, how Moravian to express our “chief axiom” of faith in a hymn verse. Following that “chief axiom,” the 1775 Synod then goes on to say that, without departing from any other articles of Christian doctrine, it wishes to hold essentially, or particularly (Grundsätzlich), to the following four points:2

a.The doctrine of the atoning sacrifice and satisfaction of Jesus for us. He was delivered for our sins. To this also pertains the truth that we receive all sanctification from the merit of Jesus and must receive all power for living and godly conduct from the Savior.

b.The doctrine of the universal depravity of humanity; that body and soul are wounded unto death, and there is no health in us; that no powers remain in the fallen person through which one can resist the depravity of body and soul or help or better oneself.

c.The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus; that God, the Creator of all things, was manifest in the flesh and has reconciled the world to Himself; that all things were created through Him and to Him; and that He is before all things, and every-thing consists in Him.

d. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit and His operations of grace. These basic concepts gave direction to the Synod’s additional formulations in the chapter on doctrine in the Results, and future Synods repeated, refined, and expanded them in a variety of ways. It is obvious that the Renewed, like the old, Unity does not assert the “immutability of dogmatic expression,” though the central core of faith remains the same.

Two other publications of these years also deserve mention (as the Bishops Hamilton note). While they were not actions of General Synod, they were official expressions of Moravian theology to the wider world. The first of these was Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenberg’s Idea Fidei Fratrum: An Exposition of Christian Doctrine, written at the request of the Unity Elders Conference in 1777 and published in 1779. It is described as

intended to place before ministers and members of the Moravian Church a scheme of Christian doctrine expressed in biblical language and to present to friends of the Unity a vindication of its orthodox and catholic character. The twenty-four sections set forth the essentials of Protestant theology with the love of God in Christ as their central theme.3

The second publication was the hymnbook of 1778 prepared by Christian Gregor. Simply by its being in use for about 100 years, this hymnal continued the Moravian Church’s practice of giving expression to its theology in its hymns more than in formal dogmatic productions.

The General Synod of 1782 professed continued adherence to the Augsburg Confession, as Saxon law stipulated, and noted that the Confession was “in conformity to the Holy Scripture.”4 This was a time of increased pressure from the rationalism of the so-called Enlightenment, and it is in response to this that in repeating the four main doctrinal points from 1775 there is added to the section on the divinity of Christ a passage stressing that Jesus was more than simply an eminent messenger from God as many people thought in those days.5 It is in this light that the Bishops Hamilton say, “The Brethren determined to adhere more faithfully in their teaching to the language of Scripture.”6

In the Results of this General Synod of 1782, before the “chief axiom” and “four points,” in the manner of the old Unity there now stands as the first chapter of the Results a statement that “The Holy Scripture is the ground [Grund] of our doctrine, and the only rule [Richtschnur] of our faith and life.”7 This was repeated in the Results of the General Synods of 1789 and 1801.8 The addition to the section on Christ’s divinity made in 1782 is not repeated in 1801. Times were different, and the point had been made. However, members of the church were urged to acquaint themselves with the Scriptures so as to guard themselves against the “erroneous teaching which is prevalent in our time.”9

The Synod of 1818 in its sections on doctrine largely re-peats the words of 1801 (with a few modifications), but it does rearrange the “four points” of earlier years, perhaps to put them in what the delegates considered a more “logical” or systematic progression. They now stand as

a. universal depravity

b. the divinity and incarnation of Christ

c. the atoning sacrifice of Jesus

d. the Holy Spirit and the operation of grace.

To these is now added a fifth point:

e. the doctrine of the fruits of faith: that this must evidence itself by willing obedience to the commandments of God because of our love and gratitude to Him.10

This addition would doubtless have been gratifying to Lukás of Prague, Jan Augusta, and other adherents of the old Unity.

Little was done over the next three Synods of 1825, 1836, and 1848 to alter these five points, though they were now expressed in paragraph form. The 1825 Synod did say that the Moravian Church does not want to expand on the “truths” of God revealed for salvation and that “we feel bound as Brethren to all who agree with us in the experience of the heart.”11 The 1836 General Synod refined the statement on Scripture so that it now reads:

The Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testament is and remains the only rule of our faith and life [practice]. We revere it as God’s word, which He spoke to humanity in former times through the prophets, and in these last days through the Son and His apostles, to instruct people in the way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. We are convinced that all truths which are necessary for a person who desires to be saved to know and believe are fully contained therein.12

The 1848 General Synod reiterated that statement.

072017moraviandoctrine2This brings us to the contributions of the General Synod held in 1857, the 400th anniversary of the Unitas Fratrum. In regard to doctrine, the 1857 Synod repeats the statement on Scripture as “the only rule of our faith and practice.” Synod then follows this with a section entitled Mysteries of Scripture.13 This states that while we keep in view the “mark” [target] set before the church by the apostle Paul (Eph. 4:13, 14) of coming into perfection in Christ, no longer “tossed to and fro” by “every wind of doctrine,” nevertheless we “never forget, that every human system of divine truth must remain imperfect, as the same apostle says, (I Cor., xiii. 9,) ‘we know in part.’”

This caution on human doctrinal systems is a clear echo of the ancient Unity’s refusing to assert “immutability of dogmatic expression.” This caution also speaks clearly to us today, that we must always bear in mind that all of our human doctrinal systems “must remain imperfect” and ever must be tested to “apprehend both the word and the spirit”14 of the Scripture.

Following its caution on the “Mysteries of the Scripture,” the 1857 Synod places the section entitled Summary of Doc-trine. As did the 1775 Synod, the 1857 Synod prefaces its points of doctrine with the hymn verse expressing the church’s “chief doctrine”: “That whoe’er believeth in Christ’s redemption,/May find free grace, and a complete exemption/From serving sin.”15 Then after an absence from the Results of three General Synods, the list of “five points” from the 1818 Synod reappears, except this time there are six of them, the doctrines of:

a. the total depravity of human nature

b. the love of God the Father [this is the added point, and it hearkens back to the “essentials” of the old Unity]

c. the real Godhead and real humanity of Jesus Christ

d. the atonement and satisfaction of Jesus Christ for us

e. the Holy Ghost and his gracious operations

f. the fruits of faith.

The Synod Results then go on to speak of the “Centre of Doctrine,” which says in part: “The word of the cross, i.e. the testimony of his voluntary offering of himself to suffer and to die, and of the treasures of grace purchased thereby, is the beginning, middle, and end of our ministry, and to proclaim the Lord’s death we regard as the main calling of the Brethren’s Church.”16 They then speak of “The Way of Salvation,” where it is said that “both Scripture and experience” show that different people are led by God to salvation in Christ in different ways, but that growth in grace is necessary.17 Then follows a section on “The Christian Life,”18 which reinforces the call to moral living. All of this was seen as relating directly to the doctrine of the church.

The 1869 General Synod left the doctrinal statements of the 1857 Synod virtually unchanged, and the 1879 Synod reiterates them, except that now two more have been added:

g. the fellowship of believers with one another

h. the Second Coming of the Lord in glory, and of the Resurrection of the dead, unto life or unto judgment.

Also, since the 1879 General Synod stated that these doctrines were clearly attested to in Scripture, a series of Scripture references was now added to the end of each to indicate clearly the Scriptures on which it is based. The 1879 Synod added a sentence to the section on leading doctrines: “Our view of the leading doctrines is set forth more especially in the confession of faith which has been annually declared by the whole Church on Easter morning for more than a hundred years.”19

First listed as only four “points” by the 1775 Synod, then five in 1818 and six in 1857, these eight “truths” of the 1879 Synod — unofficially labeled eight “essentials” in the 1950s by John Groenfeldt20 — these eight basic truths stood through the next five General Synods until 1957.

This does not mean that all doctrinal issues were settled once and for all, however; and developments just before and just after 1900 sound very similar to concerns today. We there-fore need to examine them in some detail.

In our next issue: The Crisis of 1909.


1 1775: I. A, 2. (Translation is from the 1857 General Synod; see note 31 below.)

2 1775: I.A, 2, a-d. Note that J. Taylor Hamilton in his History (1900), p. 220f., and Kenneth Hamilton in his revision of that work (1967), p. 170, list five points and arrange them in the order adopted by later Synods. It is noted, however, in the 1967 work, p. 180, that the point concerning the fruits of a godly life as the result of the work of the Holy Spirit was added by the General Synod of 1818. (Except in this footnote, all citations of the History are from the 1967 edition.)

3 Hamilton, History, p. 172.

4 1782: I, A, 7.

5 1782: I, C, 9, c.

6 History, p. 172.

7 1782: I, A, 1.

8 The report on the 1789 Synod in the Southern Archives is appar-ently not a complete one, but Bishop Hamilton’s History, p. 173f., 177, does not mention any changes in 1789 and says that the Synod of 1801 followed 1789 and “made no material changes in the statement on Moravian doctrine.” The reference in 1801 is I, A: 1, 10-11.

9 1801: I, A, 3.

10 1818: II, 7. (A chapter on “Unitäts-Statuten” here precedes the doctrinal chapter.)

11 1825: I, 4.

12 1836: II, 4. Note that the words “ground of our doctrine” do not appear here. Note also the new addition of the last sentence, in which it says that everything needed for salvation is revealed in Scripture.

13 1857: II, 5.

14 See the Bishops Hamilton’s comment on the 1740 Marienborn Synod, notes 15 and 16 above.

15 1857: II, 6.

16 1857: II, 7.

17 1857: II, 8. See above, p. 8, after note 16.

18 1857: II, 9.

19 1879: II, 7.

20 John S. Groenfeldt, Becoming a Member of the Moravian Church: A Maunal for Church Members, (Bethlehem, Pa., and Winston-Salem, N.C.: Interprovincial Board of Christian Education, Moravian Church in America, 1954), pp. 21-22.


From the June/July 2017 Moravian Magazine

Moravian Daily Texts


Saturday, August 18 — Psalm 101
Judges 1:17–2:23; Luke 18:18–30

Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord. Joshua 24:16

Keep your roots deep in Christ Jesus, build your lives on him, and become stronger in your faith, as you were taught. And be filled with thanksgiving. Colossians 2:7 (GNT)

Father, as we learn more about your marvelous works in our daily lives, we grow in deeper relationship with you. We are grateful you give us many opportunities to grow closer to you every day. Amen.

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