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A Meditation on Lutherans, Scripture, and Authority

by Hans J. Hillerbrand (Professor and Chair, Department of Religion, Duke University)

Date Unknown

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason …”

I must confess that I approach my topic with a bit of hesitancy. After all, the notion of the authority of Scripture is deeply ingrained in us Lutherans so that it should hardly be necessary to speak about it again. Indeed, not only Lutherans, but also all Protestants, relish that scene in Worms in 1521 when Luther, standing before emperor and dignitaries of the empire, declared that unless he was convinced by Scripture and plain reason, he would not recant.

Nonetheless, even though I am going to plough a familiar field once more – as if thousands of sermons from Lutheran pulpits had failed to make the point -- I will be speaking about the topic that, more than any other, stands at the heart of our Lutheran and Christian existence today. Biblical authority. This merits our attention.

My assignment is to sketch the historical views of the authority of Scripture from the Reformation to the twentieth century in order to indicate how we came to the place where we are today. I will do so by offering, first of all, a few introductory remarks, then speak about Luther, then about the Lutheran tradition from the sixteenth century to the present. I will end by leaving you with a few questions.


I begin with a simple statement. The authority of Scripture has always been acknowledged and rarely, if ever, outrightly challenged in the Christian tradition. Christians of all stripes have always claimed to be committed to the Book. Thus, scriptural authority as such has rarely been at issue. From post-apostolic Christianity to April 2005, those who ventured to expound Christian truth have done so by invoking the authority of Scripture. It gives Dr. Luther far too much credit to suggest that he was the first to extol the authority of Scripture since St. John wrote the Book of Revelation on Patmos. The authority of Scripture has always been acknowledged; what has been controversial again and again -- from the days of Marcion in the early second century to the ELCA Task Force on sexuality in the twenty-first – is exactly how this authority is to be understood. Or, to state it differently, while Christians have agreed on the authority of the Bible, they have not agreed on what the Bible says. This, of course, characterizes our situation today; I sadly conclude that there is nothing new under the sun. Says the official ELCA website about the sexuality study “Serious biblical scholars and sincere Christians disagree on what the implications are of the Bible's teachings on homosexuality when looked at in the total context of Scripture and of present day understandings of homosexuality.”

Scripture meant what the Council of Nicaea in 325 decided to be the canon. Alas, the 26 million readers of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code have been told that this council and the canon were a conspiracy, in fact, one driven by a secret motivation. To be sure, this scintillating scenario undoubtedly helped sell the book. Alas, it is bad history. There were dozens and dozens of writings floating around in the first two centuries, claiming to be authentic records of Jesus. The decision what to include and what to exclude was based, however, not on a vast conspiracy, as Dan Brown would have us believe, but on the goal of a theologically consistent set of writings that proclaimed what was widely understood as the message of Jesus. This consistent set of writings, the canon, was taken to be revelatory truth, the guide to faith and life.

This universal affirmation of the authority of Scripture clashed with the reality of divergent interpretations. The outcome was that there needed to be authoritative guides to understanding Scripture. This meant the evolution of the role of the church as interpreter, the evolution of a teaching office, first exercised by bishops, subsequently by the bishop of Rome, the pope, who claimed, either singly or in concert with the bishops assembled in council, to be the definitive judges of scriptural truth.

Thus, when Martin Luther after 1519 began to wax ever more eloquently about the authority of Scripture, he stood in a long and honorable tradition. What was new was that this affirmation of Scripture had a revelatory corollary – the charge that the authorities claiming to be normative interpreters of Scripture (tradition, pope, and council) were in fact falsifying its message. The point of departure for Luther’s understanding of the authority of Scripture was his rejection of all non-biblical authority. Luther’s notion of scriptural authority was thus both old and new – old when he called for the primacy of the Word, new when he rejected all those who claimed to be normative interpreters of the biblical message.

Luther’s rejection of non-biblical authorities fed into his notion of the primacy of Scripture. Indeed, Scripture became Luther’s fundamental theme; theology became biblical exegesis. Luther’s academic lectures at Wittenberg were exegetical exercises on biblical books. In short, Scripture was declared the decision-making authority in the church. Luther wrote, “For salvation one need not go beyond Scripture.” Or: ”no one needs to believe more than is founding Scripture.”[1] Therefore, “neither church, nor pope nor council has neither power nor authority to establish new articles of faith.”[2]

Since Scripture was God’s self-revelation, relying solely on it meant that authority in the church was taken out of human hands. God was the authority, God and humans faced each other directly, without intermediary. Luther found ever-new ways to express this fundamental conviction “Whoever has God without his words does not have God.”[3] Or “God’s word is above everything;”[4] “God’s majesty is on my side,” Luther wrote, “God uses our words, be they gospel or prophecies, as instrument, with which he himself writes the living words in our hearts.”[5] Luther’s word in his Large Catechism was “believe the Scriptures. They will not lie to you, and they know your flesh better than you yourself do.[6]

This Word, Luther insisted, has to be accepted in its entirety, and that meant both the Old and the New Testament, including the Epistle of James, meant the historical relevant sections as well as those passages having nothing to do with sin and salvation, dealing with geography,. Physics, or astronomy: all were part and parcel of this Bible. Thus, the sun moved around the earth; the patriarchs of the Old Testament were accurately described; the first chapters of the Book of Genesis informed how the universe was created. The Bible was, after all, the book of books, and that meant not only of religion but of history, geography, or astronomy as well. Luther’s condescending remark about Copernicus – “confused nonsense; I believe the Bible” – is well known. However, this claim to authenticity in matters of the natural world was for Luther something other than its authenticity in the spiritual realm. Only the spiritual message mattered, since the message of Scripture was Christ, and not geography or history: “Everyone, all Scripture is about Christ.”[7] Inspiration and authority of Scripture were related only to those parts that conveyed the message of Christ. A scripture passage had to “pertain to Christ,” “Christum treiben,” to be normative for faith and life.

Historically, Luther’s single-minded recourse to the Word, the Bible, galvanized his contemporaries. All the yearnings for reform, the desire for a deeper understanding of the Christian faith, that permeated the time before Luther, now received a watchword that allowed people to discern what was wrong and how it had to be rightened.

But before too long, Luther realized that the matter was not simple. At the Leipzig Debate in 1519, John Eck, Luther’s great antagonist, argued Catholic theology with scriptural passages and in 1521 the Louvain theologian Jacob Latomus made the case for the Roman church on the basis of Scripture. Sola scriptura, as buttress of the new theology did not seem so clear after all.

So, when Luther’s German translation of the New Testament, the September Bible, was published in 1522, it included a preface to apprise the reader that there was a right and a wrong way to affirm Scripture. Luther found that not all of the New Testament writings pertained equally “to Christ,” certainly – in his judgment - not the Epistle of James, with its pronouncement about good works. James was, Luther wrote with his characteristic combination of linguistic flair and theological insight, an “epistle of straw with which I would prefer to heat my oven.” This was a profound hermeneutic insight and yet, tellingly, Luther deleted this passage in subsequent editions of the German New Testament. He did not wish to be misunderstood. The authority of Scripture did not mean fishing for scriptural proof-texts. As one of my university teachers once quipped, if you juxtapose Matthew 27:5 “and he went out and hanged himself” with Luke 10: 37 “go and do likewise” you will get into trouble.

The corollary of the affirmation of the centrality of Scripture was the assertion that the message of Scripture was clear. For Luther the literal sense of Scripture provided the spiritual sense. While he occasionally resorted to allegorical interpretation, his presumption always was that the words must be accepted in their plain meaning, even when that caused problems, as was the case with his interpretation of Jesus’ words of institution. At the famous encounter at Marburg in 1529 Zwingli pushed Luther steadfastly to the defensive – with christological arguments and biblical passages. For example, Jesus was seated at the right hand of the Father, how could his body be in the bread? And what about the heavy artillery of John 6, with its pronouncement that it is the spirit that gives life, and the flesh is of no avail? Luther again and again reiterated the plain words of the text: This is my body, and he took a piece of chalk and ruined the table to make his point. “hoc est corpus meum.” And while generations of Lutheran theologians have emphasized how Luther’s stance fit integrally with his theology, I belive something else was more important: Luther’s literal reading of the passage was necessary to affirm his fundamental assertion that Scripture was clear.

Precisely because the message of Scripture was clear, there could be no divergent interpretations. If specific passages did not pertain to salvation, they were secondary and could, in fact, be ignored. “I admit, of course,” Luther, wrote against Erasmus, “that there are many texts in scripture that are obscure and obtuse, not because of the majesty of their subject matter, but because of our ignorance of their vocabulary and grammar. Those texts in no way hinder knowledge of the subject matter of Scripture.”[8] Luther devoted a treatise to the topic and entitled it How Christians Should Read Moses.

The clarity of the biblical text entailed that there could be no disagreement over its meaning for faith and life. When the Swiss reformer Zwingli appeared on the scene, and then the Anabaptists, and the Spiritualists, not to mention Henry VIII in England, the reform movement splitting into ever more factions, each one claiming to be the sole interpreter of Scripture, Catholics gleefully saw this turn as proof of the pudding. And Luther had to defend his notion of the clarity of Scripture.

Things have not changed much. A glance into the yellow pages of a telephone directory under “c” churches appears to drive home the point of hopeless confusion even more forcefully. No wonder that my Duke colleague, Stanley Hauerwas, never at a loss for biting quips, called sola scriptura the greatest heresy perpetrated on Christianity.

But to chide Luther (and the Protestant tradition) for allowing “every Tom, Dick, Harry, and Jane” to interpret the Bible according their whim and fancy is a fatal misunderstanding of Luther’s hermeneutic. To provide someone with a watch or a calendar does not mean that the recipient is free to determine what time or what day it is. Luther inisisted that the word comes from the outside; humans are altogether passive. Luther wrote in his Schmalkald Articles, “The Word of God shall establish articles of faith and no one else, not even an angel.”[9].

Scripture was clear because it interpreted itself. That is to say, a Scripture passage has a self-evident message. It is not dependent on human interpretation. Perhaps that was Luther‘s fundamental insight. Luther believed that books must be interpreted in terms of what we now call “authorial intent,” in accord with the intent of the author. Writings must interpret themselves, and this principle applied to Scripture. Since the book is the final authority, its interpretation cannot be brought to it from the outside, so to speak: its meaning must be found in itself. If there is an interpretative agency, Scripture will loose its own definitive authority: “ut sit per se certissima, facillima, apertissima, sui ipsius interpres.”[10] Luther taught that where pivotal Scripture passages appear to be unclear, the Spirit will clarify and enlighten. “For the spirit is necessary to understand the entire Scripture and a part of it.”[11] The emphasis is on the Spirit, not a human agency. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put the opposite method this way: “”here is exactly the same method, namely to go about the interpretation in such a way that the biblical message is passed through the sieve of human knowledge – what will not go through is scorned and tossed away.” [12]

Luther’s most thoughtful insight was his insistence that Scripture contained two opposite principles – law and gospel. The law was the principle of condemnation while the gospel was the principle of forgiveness: the two related to each other, as do crucifixion and resurrection. With this dialectic, Luther held divergent strains in Scripture in balance. He neither declared the Old Testament to be law, and the New Testament to be gospel, nor did he merge the two. With this hermeneutic key, Luther freed himself from a mechanical reliance on Scriptural proof-texting, even as it afforded him nonchalance when it came to those parts of Scripture that had nothing to do with the saving Word in Christ Jesus. As law and gospel, Scripture points, directly as well as indirectly, to Christ.

Luther thus bequeathed the insight to Christendom that Scripture alone, understood as law and gospel, was the final authority for faith and life. This was the norm, and it insisted that the words were clear and must be taken for what they say. It mattered little that Luther also had recourse to tradition – the Nicaean creed, for example, or the definition of Chalcedon – and he had no problem with that as long as the gospel affirmed tradition. Nor did Luther’s Catholic or Reformed antagonists challenge him on his assertion of the centrality of Scripture. This was Christian consensus. In the same breath, however, Catholics argued that tradition, pope, a teaching office, a magisterium, were necessary for the full appropriation of the biblical faith. Therein lay the difference. The parting of the ways between the old and the new church occurred over the issue of the self-evident clarity of Scripture.

In other words, the polemic was not over “scripture” – for Catholics esteemed Scripture as highly as did Luther and the Lutherans. It was over “sola scriptura,” Scripture alone. And behind the principle of sola scriptura lay the real issue - the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture.


The Lutheran confessional writings echoed Luther’s sentiment. Thus, the Formula of Concord states, ”Especially are we to abide by the revealed Word which cannot and will not deceive us.”[13] Or again: “We pledge ourselves to the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments as the pure and clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true norm according to which all teachers and teachings are to be judged and evaluated.”[14] Or again: “[Scripture is] the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged.”[15]

Lutheran Orthodoxy appropriated this understanding of Scripture, systematized it, explicated the ramifications, and defended it against challenges. In common with other interpreters of Scripture at the time, the Lutheran confessional writings and theologians assume the revelatory character of Scripture and focus on the task of its proper interpretation. The Book of Concord put it this way: “Dr. Luther of blessed memory ... expressly asserts … that the Word of God is and should remain the sole rule and norm of all doctrine, and that no human being’s writings dare be put on a par with it, but that everything must be subjected to it. This, of course, does not mean that other good, useful, and pure books, such as interpretations of the Holy Scriptures, refutations of errors, and expositions of doctrinal articles, should be rejected. If they are in accord with the aforementioned pattern of doctrine they are to be accepted and used as helpful expositions and explanations.”[16]

But, by the time of the Book of Concord, a new development was in the making. A phalanx of late sixteenth and seventeenth century theologians, seeking to systematize the reformers’ notions and, delineated a new understanding of the nature of Scripture. [17] They embraced the notion of its verbal inspiration.

This development must be placed into a broader context. By the late sixteenth century Protestant theologians were painfully aware that the Christianity was divided, yet each church, old or new, insisted on being the sole proprietor of Christian truth. The awareness of competing truth claims led to efforts to delineate the distinctiveness of one’s own positions. Christianity became defined as “doctrine” because doctrine expressed most cogently the distinctiveness of one’s own positions. This raised the question of the authority for doctrinal statements. While Catholics found the answer in church or pope, Protestants had to rely on the Bible. To assure the integrity of the sole Protestant source of authority, theologians erected a wall, an iron curtain, around Scripture by declaring every word, every letter of Scripture to be divinely inspired. Just as the early church had clarified uncertainty by positing a normative canon, so Protestant theology in the late sixteenth century safeguarded its doctrinal affirmation with the notion of the verbal inspiration. Only if the verbal integrity of the original text was safeguarded could proper doctrinal affirmations be made. By the end of the sixteenth century, the notion of the verbal inspiration of the Bible had become Protestant commonplace. It stated the authority of Scripture in a new way, and it grew out of a concern to have an unassailable ground for dogmatic pronouncements. In this affirmation, Lutheran theologians, no less than Reformed theologians, closed ranks.

Seventeenth century Protestant Orthodoxy perpetuated the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Scripture. This doctrine is found in all post-Reformation theologians. Matthias Flacius had sounded the theme of the authority of Scripture when he noted that the Holy Spirit is “both author and interpreter of Scripture.” He wrote, “the author of all sacred books is only one and not many: God himself. It makes little difference that he has spoken through different organs and men versed in different languages.” Orthodox theology argued that though there were differences in style in biblical writings from Genesis to revelation, the Holy Spirit had chosen the words.

Protestant theologians in the seventeenth century reiterated endlessly the full inspiration of Scripture, and its sufficiency for faith and life. One author, Aegidius Hunnius, [18]offered no less than 21 reasons for the majesty, faith, and certainty of Scripture. The polemic had an anti-Catholic orientation: Flacius insisted that the Council of Trent, in his decree on Scripture, had shown its low regard for the Word of God. According to Martin Chemnitz, Catholics stood for the “insufficiency, obscurity, and uncertainty of Scripture.”

This was the consensus among Lutheran divines of the seventeenth century. They turned the notion of a verbal inspiration of the Bible into a dogmatic affirmation. According to the theologians, there was no distinction between the revealed Word of God and the Bible. Luther’s free critique of certain biblical books – Hebrews; James, Jude, or Revelation – was no longer acceptable. The rigid affirmation of the canon in all of its parts became dogma.

The biblical writers were understood as mechanical scribes, and no personal characteristic intruded on their recording of divine revelation. Every letter of the Bible was inspired. Flacius’s Clavis included the vowel marks of the Old Testament Hebrew as divinely inspired. Until the end of the seventeenth century, the notion of a verbal inspiration of the Scriptural canon was common affirmation.

This understanding of the Bible affirmed its supernatural character, and this supernatural reading of Scripture did not cause puzzlement or problems. Indeed, nothing in European intellectuality militated against the acceptance of the supernatural. An age that believed that women were transported through the air to secret meeting places with the devil to gorge in unspeakable orgies did not find the supernatural events recorded in Scripture problematic. When, on one occasion, at Luther’s dinner table someone observed the logistic problem of the passage of the Israelites across the Red Sea, Luther retorted that this was a miracle expressing God’s wonderful providence.


By the middle of the seventeenth century a radically new mindset was beginning to make its appearance in Europe. For centuries, European intellectuality had revered the old and disregarded the new. If the sciences were conservative, that is, concerned about the preservation of the old, so were the church and theology. Thus, Galen’s book on the human anatomy, though a thousand years old, was still the textbook in anatomy in the sixteenth century, and Ptolemy’s notion of the heavenly bodies, older yet, instructed astronomers on to how to envision the firmament. And the same held true, of course, for the Bible. It, too, was over a thousand years old, and was revered as divinely true.

The change that occurred in the middle of the seventeenth century was that increasingly the old was beginning to be despised and the new received ever more enthusiastic acclaim. Descartes called his philosophy the “new” philosophy, and while that label a century earlier would have been a stigma, with him it turned into an appellation of confidence and achievement. Galen was replaced by Harvey; Ptolemy by Galileo.

Of course, all these developments were taking place in the realm of natural science, the incipient scientific revolution, but before long it became obvious that there were theological implications. In keeping with this new zeitgeist, the old way of interpreting Scripture was becoming suspect.

The first salvoes challenging the traditional understanding of Scripture were fired. Behind the challenge stood the new European mindset with its notion of radical doubt. And the more the scientists of the seventeenth century explored and discovered, the greater became their self-confident assurance about their commitment of doubting the old. A new method of studying texts made its appearance; all texts had to be subjected to critical doubt and examination. Only what was empirically verifiable and repeatable was to be accepted. Since the biblical texts contained much that was supernatural, and not empirically verifiable, the new scientific method blatantly challenged their traditional interpretation. Lorenzo Valla had blazed the trail, when he found the so-called “Donations of Constantine,” a document that had played a critical role in medieval political thought, to be a forgery. The new scholarly method for examining a text, such as would be used for Plato, for example, was to be applied to biblical texts.

While this critical approach to Scripture, driven by the same kind of doubting skepticism as characterized the work of the fledgling natural scientists, was novel indeed, something else was even more important: a divorce occurred between the mindset of European society and the mindset of church. While the Christian mindset remained by and large conservative and backwards oriented, the new mind of European society, on the contrary, looked forward, into the future, seeking to build something altogether new.

New voices began to be heard. Initially those were the voices of a few outsiders, who challenged the traditional interpretation of the Biblical texts. Louis Cappel demonstrated the late origin of the Hebrew vowel marks, while Richard insisted that the Old Testament was a product of post-exilic Judaism, an argument that Baruch Spinoza had put forward a decade earlier in his Tractatus theologo-politicus, of 1670, with his observation that the books from Genesis to II Kings were the work of a writer of a later time, probably Ezra.

There were other authors, some Lutheran, others not -- Hugo Grotius, for example, whose Annotations on the New and Old Testaments (1641-1645) exerted lasting but subtle influence on Protestant theologizing. None of these writers questioned the concept of revelatory truth. They were textual rather than theological critics, and their goal was to establish the authentic texts of divine revelation. Nonetheless, the dyke was beginning to break.

A new stage began, when, in the late seventeenth century, the new approach of questioning the historical and theological veracity of Scripture was picked up by a phalanx of English writers known as Christian Deists. They approached the biblical texts with a new mind-set that was critical not only of the text but also of its content. Author upon author, book upon book, pamphlet upon pamphlet, made the case that the authentic meaning of the Bible, and, therefore, the true meaning of the Christian religion, was different from what had been traditionally accepted. Writers, such as John Toland, Anthony Collins, Thomas Woolston, Peter Annet, and Matthew Tindal, mercilessly attacked all three traditional pillars of Christian apologetics –revelation, prophecy, and miracles – and, in the end, also the very concept of revelatory truth. The way Scripture had been understood for a millennium and a half was here rejected.

The Enlightenment began its revisionist attack on traditional Christianity. This attack was understood not so much as an attack on Christianity as on its traditional interpretation – which the Deists declared to be a perversion. It was a frontal assault, and it made little difference that none of these English Deists was a trained theologian, for most made up for their lack of learning with unbound and at times naïve enthusiasm. None saw himself as speaking from or for the community of faith. They saw themselves as reformers, as prophets of a new Christianity, heralds of the new message of an enlightened Christianity. When they were done, few of the traditional affirmations had remained.

A bit later, this way of looking at the Bible came to be called the historical-critical method, and this is the method that has dominated biblical interpretation to this day. While there are diverse definitions of this historical/critical method, simply put, it meant that the methodologyof general historical and literary criticism applied to texts in general were also applied to the record of God’s dealings with the people of the two covenants. Scholars using this method take a critical stance toward the sources; they are inclined to disregard the supernatural or miraculous in their analysis of past events; they are deeply conscious of the subjective and tentative character of their historical conclusions.

Most Protestant Biblical scholars in nineteenth century Continental Europe embraced this historical/critical method. The names of these scholars –such as David Friedrich Strauss, Julius Wellhausen, and Adolf von Harnack – are a roster of Christian history during the past two centuries. While in England this influence waned with the impact of the Wesleyan/Methodist revival and Joseph Butler’s The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Course of Nature, the new sentiment found reception in Germany mand, to some extent also – remember Thomas Jefferson’s venture to edit a new New Testament – in the American colonies.

The story picks up in Germany, where the dramatic point of departure was the musings of one Hermann Samuel Reimarus who for years scribbled on an ever-lengthier manuscript entitled Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes (Apology and Defense for the Rational Worshippers of God). The manuscript eventually ran to over a thousand pages, but fearful of a possible controversy, Reimarus never published it. After his death, his manuscript found its way to the library at Wolfenbüttel, whose librarian, the famous German playwright and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, published several parts under the title Fragments of an Unknown Wolfenbüttel). Lessing claimed that he had no idea of the identity of the author or how the manuscript had come into the library.

Now, to be sure, the English Deists had actually said it all before, but intellectual plagiarism has not always been a sacred word in the dictionary of academics, and moreover, German scholars have tended to see their country as the navel of the universe, ignoring the import of the English Deists. Reimarus has thus been identified as the father of modern biblical scholarship.

The publication of the Wolfenbüttel Fragments triggered a fierce controversy – an indication that traditional Orthodoxy had continued strong and that Reimarus had been correct in his anticipation of problems. The controversy, and its attending notoriety, set into motion a development that dominated nineteenth century German scholarship – the quest of the “historical Jesus,” the incessant effort to go beyond the Gospels, which were deemed commentary, to the real historical happening and person. The “true” Jesus was to be uncovered – what and who he had been historically – underneath various layers of accretion in the Gospels whose partisanship and exuberance had distorted if not falsified the historical truth. These “lives of Jesus” were undoubtedly the most important genre of nineteenth century biblical scholarship, though paralleled by a long line of important archeological discoveries pertaining to the Old Testament.

The quest for the historical Jesus was based on the presupposition that it was possible, with the use of the historical/critical method, to detect the biased hagiography of churchly scholars and reconstruct the life and teaching of the actual, historical Jesus. Then, just about a century ago, a sensational book unmasked these claims. Albert Schweitzer’s book The Quest of the Historical Jesus showed that these “lives” of Jesus, far from being objective, had actually been written “with hate” – namely hate of all those who had falsified the simple story of Jesus with dogmas and supernatural myths.

Biblical scholarship took Schweitzer’s demurrers to have pointed to an abuse of the historical-critical method rather than a fundamental weakness even though the latter was precisely what Schweitzer had argued. Thus, in the early twentieth century, the historical/critical approach continued to dominate until the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, the father of what came to be called neo-orthodox (or dialectic) theology, took on the German historian Adolf von Harnack, then the German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann in two famous exchanges.

Barth was deeply disenchanted with the understanding of the authority of Scripture which he found regnant in the 1920s. He charged that the nineteenth century biblical scholars’ affirmation of the radical historical nature of the Bible had led them to ignore the Bible. He argued that the trouble with the historical/critical method was that it did not get to the heart of the matter –namely, what was the text, the Bible, all about? Harnack, a true nineteenth century liberal, had argued that one could not derive theology from the Bible. This did not mean a disparagement of Scripture, because, echoing what the early nineteenth century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher had contended, while the Bible was human, humans were divine. Scripture, a human document, pointed to the eternal value of the human soul.

The prominent New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann, in turn, was anything but a nineteenth century liberal. Against nineteenth century liberalism, he in fact shared with Barth the concern to get back to the message of the Bible. However, Bultmann rejected the supernatural and engaged in a program of “demythologizing” Scripture, that is, to remove the “myths” in order to obtain the authentic reading of the message of Jesus. According to Bultmann, the message of Scripture points to a “new existence;” Bultmann’s program of demythologizing had a parallel in his “existentializing.” Scripture is seen a human exploration of what God offers a new exisdtence – expressed in the biblical verse “that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

Karl Barth was not a biblical literalist. He was vague, for example, on the question of the historicity of the New Testament miracles, but he was utterly firm in his assertion that the New Testament miracles are language pointing beyond itself, to the Wholly Other, God. The heart of the matter is what is the text is all about?

Barth’s ideas resonated among a generation of theologians, more so than biblical scholars. Nonetheless, one may see him as a representative of conservative biblical scholarship, a scholarship that is by no means homogeneous, even as some of its representatives have argued for a judicious use of the historical/critical method. Nonetheless, the common denominator has been the rejection of the assumptions of the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century. The proponents of this traditional approach are found in all Protestant traditions, though they tend to be more numerous in some than in others. Theologically conservative, they have in some instances retained the notion of verbal inerrancy and in other instances set firm parameters for the historical/critical method.


Finally, the later twentieth century brought not only a continuation of the trajectories just mentioned, the neo-orthodox loosely described as “conservative,” but also a plethora of new approaches to Scripture, each with its devoted partisans, none, however, yielding anything near universal concurrence. These approaches have in common that they seek to clarify and refine the historical critical method. They have been called “approaches” rather than methods, since the underlying method tends to be historical/critical. This is well brought out by Feminist criticism, which has highlighted, for example, the strata of biblical society, which gave woman important roles in early Christianity. It has also focused attention on the women in the New Testament, and in both respects there have been important insights. But Feminist criticism shares the hermeneutic suspicion with proponents of the historical/critical method. The texts are viewed with suspicion. The writings of the New Testament are by male authors, thus they tell an incomplete and biased story. One must peel back layers in order to get to historical truth. While some of the findings seem to be rather precarious exegetical excursions, this approach has many and ardent supporters.


What are we then to make of this story? I shall summarize by drawing seven conclusions.

  1. The European Enlightenment created a new situation by subjecting biblical writings to the scrutiny, increasingly highly technical, of historical authenticity. This was a new way of looking at Scripture, since it held that the relevance of a particular Scripture passage was related to its proven historical accuracy and authority. For those who have been so persuaded, the Bible as such, that is, the canon of Scripture, is no longer authoritative, but only those parts deemed by scholars to be historically authentic. A new canon was established, not at all clearly and uniformly defined, but different from the Nicaean canon nonetheless. Biblical authority is still the watchword, though for many it is authority of a different set of texts than for the traditionalists. The members of the so-called Jesus Seminar used different colored marbles to establish the authenticity of sayings of Jesus.
  2. Few churches have issued normative modern confessional statements about the authority of Scripture. This holds true for most of the churches of the Lutheran tradition. The Lutheran confessional writings of the sixteenth century take the general authority of Scripture for granted, but when the Book of Concord was published in 1580, the implications of the scientific revolution were light-years away, the traditional mindset was still regnant, and the Book of Concord did not address questions and issues that were not on the table. The scrutiny of biblical texts to ascertain their authenticity (and therefore authority) is a modern purview. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Lutheran Church of Australia are the two major Lutheran bodies that did formulate specific positions of biblical authority. The Missouri Synod statement regarding Scripture of 1932 asserts “We teach also that the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures is not a so-called "theological deduction," but that it is taught by direct statements of the Scriptures. Since the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God … they contain no errors or contradictions, but that they are in all their parts and words the infallible truth, also in those parts which treat of historical, geographical, and other secular matters.” The Lutheran Church of Australia “Theses on Scripture and Inspiration” of 1951 and 2001 declare “We therefore accept the Scriptures … as the only source and ultimate judge, rule and standard of all doctrine in the church, also in the doctrines on the Holy Scriptures and on Inspiration …We teach the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Scriptures … but we reject the various theories … which have been offered as an explanation of the ‘how’ of inspiration, or by which the verbal and plenary ration is in any way limited or denied. “Compare that with the statement in the ELCA Constitution: “This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.”
  3. Ever since the eighteenth century, the supernatural has been the fundamental divide regarding biblical authority. That is to say, after talk about the seven 24-hour days of creation, about Jonah and the whale, about the raising of Lazarus, or Easter, the question facing the scholar is what is to be said about supernatural revelation? The historical/critical approach has tended to exclude notions of direct divine intervention from the realm of history; it has also exuded a broad skepticism of the Bible as an authentic historical source.
  4. Today the men and women in the pews are not what their forebears used to be a century or two ago. Modern men and women may not know the Bible any better, in fact, indications are that they know it less, but church members nowadays tend to be more literate, more self-confident on all sorts of topics – from WMD in Iraq to Social Security. Typically church members are not thoroughly familiar with the principles of the faith (or the Bible). Probably only a small percentage of the members of a typical congregation regularly avail themselves of adult religious educational opportunities, a reality that raises the question as to how judgments are made and opinion formed. And yet they have judgments and opinions. The discourse in the church about biblical authority, therefore, does not have a common starting point.
  5. Our situation is characterized by a kind of supersessionism. This notion acknowledges that certain topics were understood differently or inadequately in biblical times. The teachings and insights of Scripture are understood to have been superseded by insights from a variety of sources – history, sociology, anthropology, psychology. In a way this is but a reiteration of the old notion of the insufficiency of Scripture, the notion that to understand the message of Scripture requires emendation and supplementation. It says that though modern interpretations may differ from traditional interpretations, the modern perspective is more accurate and authentic. This notion acknowledges that certain modern affirmations do not coincide with biblical teachings – what they meant then – but insists that these new insights drawn from various areas of human endeavor allow us to modify traditional teachings. The key concept is that of evolving truth.
  6. The success of the historical/critical method of understanding Scripture lies in its harmony with the modern zeitgeist. Even as the interpreters of supernatural events in pre-modern days were in harmony with the prevailing mindset of their time, so the historical/critical scholars have worked in harmony with the inquisitive skepticism and rationalism that have informed modernity. Since, on the face of things, the claims of Scripture are unabashedly supernatural, they are out of step with modernity.
  7. successful when there was a threat of schism. At one point, neither ecclesiastical nor civic authorities hesitated to intrude, blow the whistle, when disagreement seemed to mean schism. The authorities, perhaps more concerned about civic calm than scriptural teaching, unity than fidelity, insisted on acceptable parameters of right belief. Thus, when all was said and done, there was in the Lutheran tradition a teaching office after all. Thank goodness. Otherwise, the Gnesiolutherans and the Phillippists would still be arguing today.
  8. For the better part of three hundred years, Western Christendom has had competing and conflicting approaches to the question of how exactly does the Bible exercise authority. That question would seem to be the crux of the matter. Can the confessional language used centuries ago, address that question? Finally, while the theological authority of Scripture has been several challenged, something else must also be said. As a devotional book, as a book for the happy occasions in life, such as christenings and weddings, as a book of comfort and solace for all in physical or emotional need, such as deathbeds and funerals, the place of Scripture seems unabated. Here biblical authority still prevails.

But is this enough?


1. WA 39, II, 43; 7, 453back

2. WA 50, 607.back

3. WA 30, 3, 213.back

4. WA 10, 2, 215.back

5. WA 3, 255fback

6. Large Catechism V:76, p. 455back

7. WA 46, 414. “Universa Scriptura de solo Christo est ubique.”back

8. Rupp, LCC, p. 100back

9. Smallcald Articles II, II:15, p. 295.back

10. WA 7, 97.back

11. WA 18, 609back

12. Testament to Freedom, p. 150.back

13. Formula of Concord, Epitome XI:14, p. 496.back

14. Solid Declaration, Rule & Norm: 3, pp. 501-02. See also “We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged, as it is written in Ps. 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And St. Paul says in Gal. 1:8, “Even if an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Other writings of ancient and modern teachers, whatever their names, should not be put on a par with Holy Scripture. Every single one of them should be subordinated to the Scriptures and should be received in no other way and no further than as witnesses to the fashion in which the doctrine of the prophets and apostles was preserved in post-apostolic times.” Epitome, Rule & Norm: 1-2, pp. 464-65.back

15. Epitome I.back

16. Solid Declaration, Rule & Norm: 9-10, pp. 505-06.back

17. ...back

18. ’s de sacrosancta majestate indubitataque fide ac certitudine sacrae scripturae, of 1594back