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.
Introduction by the Rev. Dr. C. Daniel Crews
When the president of the Provincial Elders Conference of the Moravian Church, Southern Province, asked me to prepare this study, I was well aware of the importance of the task, for this has to do with the most basic matters of the faith which we as Christians, and particularly as Moravian Christians, pro-fess. It should also provide a helpful resource as we in our day seek to explore more deeply the beliefs which unite us as Moravians. As I began this work, however, I was not aware of the magnitude of the task, for while we would assume that The Ground of the Unity did not simply appear out of the blue at the General Synod of 1957, I did not fully appreciate how intrinsically it is part of a long line of doctrinal statements which extend back throughout the more than 500 years of our church’s ongoing life and development. That being so, this study can only begin to scratch the surface of the valuable and fascinating wealth of material which relates to our church’s confession of its faith. Months, even years, of study could be devoted to this topic to treat it in a fully comprehensive way. I pray, however, that we may benefit from what has been un-covered so far. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior, let us begin.
The Old Unity
In the old Unitas Fratrum of the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries primary attention was devoted to living a life of faith and carrying out its practical implications. Certainly they were also concerned with verbally expressing the faith they held, but, as Amédeo Molnár says in his study of their theology:
“The Unity of Brethren never asserted the immutability of dogmatic expression. It was convinced that continuity was given to its theology primarily by its close association with the essential matters of Christian faith, as the Holy Scriptures bear witness to these within the confessing Christian community. It is true that ecclesiastical and theological expression among the Brethren leaned on the apostolic confession of faith and on the dogmatic tradition of Western Christianity, but it did not assert for itself the claim of being the fixed and unchangeable rule. Likewise, the social and spiritual setting in which the Unity arose and lived affected substantially the form of its theological thinking and experience.1”
For this reason, as they progressed to clearer understanding from study of Scripture, from the experience of their own Christian lives and from interaction with other Christians in other communions, particularly during the Reformation, the Unity often modified and at times repudiated the particular expressions and emphases of former years. For example, they benefited from the tutelage of Luther for a greater appreciation of salvation by faith as opposed to works-righteousness; they gave up the idea of seven sacraments; and they abandoned the practice of rebaptizing those who came to them from other denominations.
Certainly in their confessions of faith the old Unity did not assert “immutability of dogmatic expression.” Bishop Edmund Schweinitz, in his History of the Unitas Fratrum2, lists no fewer than 11 separate confessions spanning the years 1468-1573. Moreover, the same confession sometimes appeared in Latin, Czech, Polish, or German versions, some-times with rather significant variations among them. As Bishop Schweinitz observes in the introduction to his list of confessions, “The subject is therefore exceedingly complicated.”3 This is hardly surprising, for many of these documents are in the form of letters or statements to various authorities outside the church who demanded to know who and what the Unity was, and opinions may vary as to which of them have the status of formal confessions of faith. They do serve, however, to show that in the course of its history the old Unitas Fratrum produced a great number of different official accounts of its belief and practice.
The Unity did not see itself as a confessional church in the sense that some others (the Lutherans for example) did, and it usually produced formal statements of faith only in response to outside challenge, often tailoring them according to circumstances. In these statements the Unity tried to hold to the most basic Christian truths without getting too much into theological niceties. This stemmed directly from the horror with which it saw the churches of the Reformation splitting into opposing camps over what the Unity saw as minor theological distinctions. It did not want to provide more ammunition for attacks of Christians upon other Christians and it certainly found much with which it could agree in both the Lutheran and Reformed camps.
But though it sought friendly relations with other communions, the Unity resisted pressure to abandon its own insights and be absorbed by other larger churches of the Reformation. For instance, the Unity was more concerned about disciplined, dedicated Christian living than it was about differing interpre-tations of the nature of Christ’s presence in the Holy Com-munion, though it consistently affirmed that “sacramental” presence. Of course, Lukás of Prague and others did make forceful statements to other Reformers and such a fiery leader as Jan Augusta did at times engage in sharp polemics.4 Still, this was perhaps inevitable in an age of such theological con-tention when the Unity itself was often under harsh attack.
For the most part, though, members of the Unity held to their earliest principle, enunciated when people of differing theological persuasions had gathered to form the Unity, of taking the Scripture for their norm rather than depending on constructions of human theology.5 To be sure, however, they and others outside the Unity did not always agree on what the norm of Scripture was. Opinions within the Unity — then, as today — were not always unanimous on this either.
Our excerpt of Confessing Our Unity in Christ will continue in the April issue of The Moravian Magazine.
1 In Rudolf Rícan, The History of the Unity of Brethren, trans. C. Daniel Crews (Bethlehem, Pa., and Winston-Salem, N.C.: The Moravian Church in America, 1992), p. 390.
2 2nd edition, (Bethlehem, Pa.: The Moravian Publication Concern, 1901), pp. 648-653.
3 Schweinitz, p. 648. Different authors count differently, and even the same author may reach a different total in different works. Thus, Anton Gindely, who counted each edition as a separate confession, in one book counts 36 confessions but in another comes up with 34. In Volume 1 of his careful history of the old church, Geschichte der Böhmischen Brüder (Herrnhut: Verlag der Missionsbuchhandlung, 1922), pp. 523-534, Dr. Joseph Th. Müller, the Unity Archivist, has a list of the early confessions which differs somewhat from that of Bishop Schweinitz.
4 Rícan, p. 118f, 139, 154, 164.
5 Müller, I, 76.
From the March 2017 Moravian Magazine