The Flacian Controversy
[From the September-October 1995 issue of The Concordia Lutheran.]
Matthias Flacius Illyricus, one of the most learned and capable theologians of his day and the most faithful, devoted, staunch, zealous, and able exponent and defender of genuine Lutheranism, was the author of the malignant controversy which bears his name. Flacius was born March 3, 1520, in Illyria, hence called Illyricus. He studied in Basel, Tuebingen, and Wittenberg. At Wittenberg he was convinced that the doctrine of the Lutheran Church is in complete agreement with the Word of God. Following the tragic controversy in which he later on in his career became involved, he was persecuted by his enemies and forsaken by his friends, moving from one place to another, until he found a last asylum for himself and his family (wife and eight children), and where he also died in a hospital, March 11, 1575.
After Victorin Strigel, at the second session of the disputation in Weimer in 1560, had dilated on the philosophical definitions of the terms "substance" and "accident," and had declared that original sin was an accident which merely impeded free will in its activity, Flacius, in the heat of the controversy, exclaimed: "Original sin is not an accident, for the Scriptures call it flesh, the evil heart," etc. Thus he fell into the pitfall which the wily Strigel had adroitly laid for him. Though Flacius seemed to be loath to enter upon the matter any further, and protested against the use of philosophical definitions in theology, Strigel now was eager to entangle him still further, plying him with the question: "Do you deny that original sin is an accident?" Flacius answered, "Luther expressly denies that it is an accident." Strigel: "Do you mean to deny that sin is an accident?" Flacius: "I have said that Scripture and Luther affirm that it is a substance." ... The mistake of Flacius was that he took literally terms denoting substance which the Bible and Luther employ in a figurative sense. In the following (third) session, however, he repeated his error, declaring: "I must stand by my statement that original sin is not an accident, but a substance..." Flacius erred fatally by identifying this inborn evil tendency with the substance of fallen man and the essence of his will as such.
According to Preger the first decided opposition to the Flacian teaching came from Moerlin and Chemnitz, in Brunswick, to whom Flacius had also submitted his tract (On the Appellations and essence of Original Sin or the Old Adam) for approval... In a letter of August 10, 1568, Hesshusius, who now had read the tract more carefully, charged Flacius with teaching that Satan was a creator of substance, and before long refused to treat with him any further... In 1572 Hesshusius, in order to prevent further accessions to Flacianism, published his Antidote against the Impious and Blasphemous Dogma of Matthias Flacius Illyricus by which He Asserts that Original Sin Is Substance. In this book Hesshusius correctly argued: "If original sin is the substance of the soul, then we are compelled to assert one of two things, - either that Satan is the creator of substances, or that God is the creator and preserver of sin."
The Settlement of this Controversy in the Formula of Concord, Article I of Original Sin
This Article sets forth, on the one hand, the position of Flacius and, on the other hand, the position of the Lutheran theologians who, on the basis of Scripture, opposed Flacius. In clear and unmistakable language Article I sets forth the true Scriptural teaching that God is not a creator, author, or cause of sin, but by the instigation of the devil through one man sin (which is a work of the devil) has entered the world, Rom. 5:12; 1 John 3:7. Scripture testifies that God has created human nature not only before the Fall, but that God even since the Fall is the Creator of man, and creates his body and soul, Job 10:8-12; Ps. 139:14-16. Nevertheless, this same creature and work of God is lamentably corrupted by sin; for the mass from which God now forms and makes man was corrupted and perverted in Adam, and is thus transmitted by inheritance to us.
Therefore, in order that God's creation and work in man may be distinguished from the work of the devil, we say that it is God's creation that man has body and soul; also, that it is God's work that man can think, speak, do, and work anything; for in Him we live, and move, and have our being, (Acts 17:28). But that the nature is corrupt, that its thoughts, words, and works are wicked, is originally a work of Satan, who has thus corrupted God's work in Adam through sin, which from him is transmitted by inheritance to us.
Consider the unspeakable goodness of God, that God does not immediately cast from Himself into hell-fire this corrupt, perverted, sinful mass, but forms and makes from it the present human nature, which is lamentably corrupted by sin, in order that He may cleanse it from all sin, sanctify and save it by His dear Son.
If there were no distinction between the nature or essence of corrupt man and original sin, it must follow that Christ either did not assume our nature, because He did not assume sin, or that, because He assumed our nature, He also assumed sin; both of which are contrary to the Scriptures. But inasmuch as the Son of God assumed our nature, and not original sin, it is clear from this fact that human nature, even since the Fall, and original sin, are not one and the same thing, but must be distinguished.
It is clear that the doctrine must be rejected, when it is asserted and taught that original sin is the nature, substance, essence, body, or soul itself of corrupt man, so that between our corrupt nature, substance, and essence and original sin there is no distinction whatsoever. For the chief articles of our Christian faith forcibly and emphatically testify why a distinction should and must be maintained between man's nature or substance, which is corrupted by sin, and the sin, by which man is corrupted.
The Verdict of History
Seeberg remarks: "Flacius was not a heretic, but in the wrangle of his day he was branded as such, and this has been frequently repeated." A similar verdict is passed by Gieseler and other historians. But whatever may be said in extenuation of his error, it cannot be disputed that the unfortunate phrases of Flacius produced, and were bound to produce, most serious religious offense, as well as theological strife, and hopeless doctrinal confusion.
(Compiled from the Concordia Triglotta, pages 144-152, 859-879)
What a lesson for us Lutherans as we observe the Reformation! How careful we must be with the words and terms which we use in the Church so that they neither add to nor subtract from to the Word of God which is to be the sole Source and Norm of all Christian teaching in the Church! Let us hold fast to sound speech (Titus 2:8) and continue to speak the same thing, that there be no divisions among us, but that we be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Cor. 1:10).