[Article XXVIII(XIV):] Of the Power of the Church

Written in Latin by Philip Melanchthon (1531)

Translated from the Latin into German by Justus Jonas (1531)

English Translation by Ambrose and Socrates Henkel (1851), Revised by W. F. Lehmann (1854)

Link to Bente/Dau Translation from Latin (1921)

[1] On this subject our adversaries raise a great clamor about the privileges and immunities, as they call them, of the clergy; and then come to this conclusion: "All," say they, "that is said in this article against the immunities of the church and of the priests, is of no account or force." [2] But in this matter the framers of the Confutation are basely calumniating us; for there is nothing said in our Confession against the privileges of the church or of the priests, conferred upon them by the civil government, by emperors, kings, and princes; we teach on the contrary, that civil regulations and rights should be observed.

[3] Would to God, that our adversaries would but once listen to the heart-rending complaints of all the churches, to the deep cries and groans of so many pious hearts. Our opponents do not forget the privileges of the church, or their worldly interests; but about the condition of the most important offices in the church they are unconcerned; they care not what is taught and preached, nor about preserving the proper use of the Sacraments; they ordain even the most stupid men. Thus the Gospel doctrine went to decay, the churches not being provided with qualified preachers. They forge traditions and impose intolerable burdens, that are ruinous to the soul, adhering more closely to their traditions than to the commandments of God. [4] Many poor souls are now involved in doubt, not knowing what to do. It is therefore the duty of the prelates to hear what is right or wrong, to remedy abuses, to relieve souls from their distressing perplexity, and to remove the burden from the oppressed conscience. But their deeds are manifest: they issue edicts contrary to the plain truth; they exercise unheard-of tyranny against pious men, in order to support some of their traditions, which are evidently contrary to the Word of God. [5] Now, as they boast of their privileges, they should of right remember the duties of their office, and hear the groans and complaints of many pious Christians, which God assuredly hears, and for which he will call the prelates to an account.

[6] Nor does the Confutation reply to our arguments, but displays its genuine Papal character, claiming great power for the bishops, without proving it. Thus it says, that the bishops have authority to rule, to judge, to punish, to coerce, to make laws conducive to eternal life. In this manner the Confutation boasts of the power of the bishops, but without proof. The controversy turns upon the question whether the bishops have the power to make laws without the authority of the Gospel, and to enforce them as divine services, meriting eternal life.

[7] Our answer is: the doctrine of the remission of sins without merit for Christ's sake, by faith, must be maintained in the church, and equally so, the doctrine that all human ordinances are incompetent to reconcile God. Accordingly neither sin nor righteousness should be ascribed to meat, drink, clothing, and like things; for Paul says: "The kingdom of God is not meat and drink," Rom. 14:17. [8] The bishops have no power, therefore, to make ordinances, without authority from the Gospel, through which to obtain the remission of sins, or to establish divine services that can justify us before God, and to make their non-observance a mortal sin. All this is taught in the single passage in the Acts of the Apostles, 15:9-10, where Peter says: "The hearts are purified by faith." Besides, they forbid to put a yoke or a burden upon the disciples, saying that it is a dangerous thing. They also intimate that those who thus impose burdens on the church, sin most fearfully, oppose God, and tempt him; for they say: "Why tempt ye God?" This severe and earnest declaration of the Apostles, which should of right alarm them like a clap of thunder, is not at all taken to heart by our antagonists, who are attempting to maintain their own devices by force and violence.

[9] They also condemn the fifteenth article, in which we assert that we cannot merit the forgiveness of sins by human ordinances; and they hold that human ordinances are useful and conducive to eternal life. But it is obvious that they afford the heart no solid consolation, and give it no new light or life, [10] as Paul says, Col. 2:22, that ordinances are of no avail in obtaining everlasting righteousness or eternal life; for they teach a difference in meats, clothing, and like things, which pass away in their use; but eternal life, which begins inwardly, by faith, in this life, is worked by the Holy Spirit in the heart, through the Gospel. Our adversaries, therefore, can never prove that we can merit eternal life through the ordinances of men.

[11] Now, as the Gospel clearly forbids the imposition of such ordinances upon the church and the conscience, as means of obtaining the remission of sins, or as necessary parts of divine worship, and as indispensable to Christian holiness, or finally as obligations which cannot be neglected without incurring mortal sin, our adversaries can never show that the bishops have authority to establish such services to God.

[12] But we have stated in our Confession what power the bishops have in the church. Those who now bear the name of bishops in the church, altogether neglect their episcopal office as set forth in the Gospel; still they may be bishops according to the canonic law, which we are not disposed to depreciate. But we are speaking of true Christian bishops; [13] and we are pleased with the old division, namely, that the power of the bishops consists in potestate Ordinis and potestate Jurisdictionis, that is, in the administration of the Sacraments, and in spiritual jurisdiction. Accordingly, each Christian bishop has postestatem Ordinis, that is, power to preach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments; he also has the power of spiritual jurisdiction in the church, that is, authority to exclude those living in open vice, from the congregation, and, when they repent, to receive them again, and absolve them. [14] But they have no despotic power, that is, they cannot judge without positive law; nor have they royal power, that is, power over existing laws: but they are subject to the positive law and the express command of God, according to which they are to regulate their spiritual power and jurisdiction. Although they have such jurisdiction over public vice, still it does not follow, that they are authorized to establish new modes of worship. These two things are widely different. Besides, this jurisdiction does not extend over transgressions of their new laws, but solely over sins against the law of God; for the Gospel certainly does not establish a special, independent government for them.

[15] True, we have stated in our Confession, that the bishops may establish ordinances to preserve order and decorum in the church, but not as necessary acts of worship. Nor must they be imposed as such upon the conscience; for Paul says, Gal. 5:1: "Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." [16] The observance of these external ordinances must therefore be discretionary, so that they may not be regarded as essential to salvation. Nevertheless it is a matter of duty to avoid giving offence. Thus the Apostles, for the sake of good discipline, ordained many things in the church, which were altered in the course of time; but they instituted no ordinances as necessary or unalterable; for they certainly did not act contrary to their own writings and doctrine, in which they strenuously contend that no statutes should be imposed upon the church, as being essential to salvation.

[17] That is a simple and clear exposition of human ordinances, to show that they are not necessary parts of worship, but yet should be observed, according to circumstances, to avoid offence. [18] Many learned and illustrious men have held and taught this view in the church; and certainly our adversaries cannot gainsay it. It is also equally certain, that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: "He that heareth you, heareth me," Luke 10:16, do not imply the ordinances of men, but are directly opposed to them. For the Apostles did not here receive a mandatum cum libera, that is, a general and unlimited command and authority, but the mandate was limited, namely, to preach, not their own word, but the Word of God, and the Gospel. And by the words: "He that heareth you, heareth me," the Lord would strengthen all men, as it was necessary that we should be fully assured that the written and the preached Word is the power of God, and that no one need seek or expect another word from heaven. [19] Therefore, the declaration, "He that heareth you, heareth me," cannot be applied to human ordinances; for here Christ would tell them so to teach, that through their mouth Christ himself may be heard. Now, if this is to be done, they must not preach their own, but his Word, his voice and Gospel. This consolatory declaration, which most forcibly confirms our doctrine, and contains much useful instruction and comfort for the Christian, is referred by these simpletons, to their foolish ordinances, to their meat, drink, clothing, and similar puerile things.

[20] They also quote Heb. 13:17: "Obey them that have the rule over you," etc. This passage requires obedience to the Gospel; it does not confer any special authority or lordly power, independent of the Gospel, upon the bishops; hence they should not make statutes contrary to the Gospel, nor explain them contrary to it; for when they do this, the Gospel forbids us to obey them, as Paul says, Gal. 1:8: "Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you, than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed."

[21] In the same manner we also reply to the passage, Matt. 23: 2-3: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do." Certainly this is no universal or general command to observe all they enjoin, even contrary to the command and Word of God. For the Scriptures elsewhere say: "We ought to obey God rather than men," Acts 5:29. Hence, when their teachings are contrary to the Gospel, we should not listen to them. Nor does this passage establish a government apart from the Gospel; consequently they cannot prove by the Gospel, the power which they have established without it, for the Gospel does not speak of traditions, but of teaching the Word of God.

[22] But the slanderous charge of our adversaries against us, in the conclusion of their Confutation, that this doctrine gives occasion for disobedience and other offences, cannot justly be made against our doctrine; for it is obvious that it refers to the civil government in terms of the highest commendation. And it is known, that where this doctrine is preached, the authorities have too, by the grace of God, hitherto been duly honored by the subjects.

But as it is regards the disunion and dissensions existing in the church, it is well known how they originated, and that they were occasioned by the retailers of indulgences, who unblushingly preached intolerable lies without shame, and then condemned Luther, because he did not approve these falsehoods. Besides, they were constantly agitating other controversies, so that Luther was led to assail other errors also. But as our opponents would not tolerate the truth, and even undertake to sustain palpable errors by violence, it is easy to judge who caused the separation. Indeed the whole world, all wisdom, and all power, should yield to Christ and his holy Word; but the devil, being the enemy of God, arrays all his power against Christ, to suppress and quench the Word of God. Thus the devil, with his members, setting himself against God's Word, is the cause of division and disunion; for we have most earnestly sought peace, and still most anxiously desire it, provided we are not forced to blaspheme and deny Christ. God, the judge of all hearts, knows that we have no pleasure nor peace in this fearful disunion. [24] Nor have our opponents as yet been willing to make peace, unless we would agree to drop the blessed doctrine of the remission of sins through Christ, without our merit, which would be the grossest blasphemy against Christ.

And although we do not deny, that, as usual, the wickedness and imprudence of some, may have given offence in this schism (for thus the devil seeks to disgrace the Gospel); yet all this is nothing in comparison with the great consolation which this doctrine affords, by teaching that we receive the remission of sins and the grace of God for Christ's sake, without merit of our own; and by informing us, that it is not serving God, to forsake one's temporal position, or civil office, but that such relations are acceptable to God,--truly holy and divine services.

[25] If we should also state the offences given the opposite party, a task for which we certainly have no inclination, it would make a fearful record indeed, [26] namely, how they turned the Mass into a scandalous blasphemous fair; what unchastity was caused by their celibacy; how the Popes have waged war upwards of four hundred years with the emperors, forgetting the Gospel, and striving only to be emperors themselves, and to obtain the control of all Italy; how they sported with the church-property; how, in consequence of their negligence, many false doctrines and religious services were established by the monks; for what is their worship of saints but palpable, heathenish idolatry? None of their writers say a word about the faith in Christ, through which the remission of sins is obtained; they ascribe the greatest holiness to human ordinances, about which they chiefly write and preach. Moreover, the spirit which they openly manifest, in murdering so many innocent, pious men now on account of their Christian principles, may properly be counted among their offences. But we shall not speak of this now; for this matter should be judged according to the Word of God, without regard, in the meantime, to the offences of either party.

[27] We hope that all godly men will satisfactorily learn from this book, that we teach Christian doctrine, and that our principles are consolatory and wholesome to all pious men. We therefore pray God to grant his grace, that his holy Gospel may be acknowledged and honored by all, to his praise, and to the peace, union, and salvation of all men. And we hereby declare our readiness, whenever it may be necessary, to give further account of all these articles.