Martin Luther in the preface to his commentary on Psalm 118 wrote the following:
“The neglect of Scripture, even by spiritual leaders, is one of the greatest evils in the world. Everything else, arts or literature, is pursued and practiced day and night, and there is no end of labor and effort; but Holy Scripture is neglected as though there were no need of it. Those who condescend to read it want to absorb everything at once. There has never been an art or a book on earth that everyone has so quickly mastered as the Holy Scriptures. But its words are not, as some think, mere literature (Lesewort); they are words of life (Lebewort), intended not for speculation and fancy but for life and action. But why complain? No one pays any attention to our lament. May Christ our Lord help us by His Spirit to love and honor His holy Word with all our hearts. Amen” (1530 - LW 14:46)
It was with dismay, exasperation, and a pinch of sarcasm that Luther wrote the words quoted above. His exasperation and dismay were understandable. How was it, he wondered, that so many churchmen (sic) of his day were so fascinated by all sorts of art, literature, and philosophy but seemed to regard the Bible with such a “ho-hum” and even contemptuous attitude? They seemed to assume that they had mastered the central message of Scripture and they therefore no longer had any need to consult it. And so, it seems they looked for inspiration and intellectual guidance elsewhere – to whatever bits of art, literature, and culture might tickle their imaginations. To be sure, they might give lip service to the importance of the Bible – proof-texting conclusions to which they had already come under the inspiration of other sources, but Scripture was neither the anchor nor the driving force behind their intellectual meanderings.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with looking for illustrative material from one’s culture to enhance preaching and facilitate the communication of the gospel message. Did not Jesus do the same – namely, draw people deeply into His message through the telling of stories, that is, the parables? He told stories that drew heavily upon experiences from the common life of the day. Jesus’ parables take for granted that His listeners, then and now, would relate readily to the dilemmas, scenes, and themes He described a sower going out to sow, a wealthy landowner with a rebellious son, a traveler on a lonely road who is beaten and robbed, a lost coin, a lost sheep, and so on.
That being said, however, it is one thing to draw upon scenes of every day life in order to communicate the gospel more clearly; but it is quite another thing to lean or draw so heavily upon that culture that the message of Scripture is lost or subverted by an agenda foreign to it. The assumption was and is that to be relevant (whatever that means), the church must accommodate the gospel to the culture. In Luther’s opinion, that was one of the many problems facing the church of his day.
In our opening quote, Luther laments the fact that educated churchmen of his day could seemingly expound at length upon the arts. They might be able to quote verbatim from the classics of literature, philosophy, and theater. Luther himself had been well schooled in these disciplines, perhaps better than many of his fellow churchmen and academics. However, his lament was that many of his fellows seemed more interested in these accretions than in the central message of scripture. Even worse, many seemed not to care one wit about it — i.e. the gospel.
In an article titled, “Martin Luther’s Love for the Bible”, Dr. Richard P. Bucher writes,
“Luther complains that both in the monasteries and the universities the Bible was seldom read directly, and when it was, it was understood according to the categories of Aristotle. Those seeking ‘real’ theology were instead directed to study the scholastic theologians, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Occam, and others.”1
Unfortunately, a church piloted in this way is almost as misdirected as a ship without a rudder; it is a ship following a compass that points in the wrong direction. Thus, in the words of Paul, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Rom.1:22). Like a scene from the movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Man’s Chest”, in which Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has a compass that points in whatever direction happens to be his heart’s desire, or the heart’s desire of whoever happens to be holding the compass, the church in Luther’s day had been taken captive by those who piloted the ecclesiastical ship in whatever direction their hearts desired. Luther, much to his chagrin, had seen it all: money being raised for church building projects via the sale of indulgences, justification by works being touted all over via the sale of those indulgences, moral laxity and corruption on the part of laity and especially clergy in Rome and throughout the church, and so much more. These were but a few of the ways in which the gospel was being twisted to suit those with a more worldly agenda, that is, those with hearts untutored by and contemptuous of the clear teaching of Scripture.
Of course, these challenges and threats are not unique to Luther’s day. The gospel message has been, is, and ever will be under assault in every time and place until Jesus returns to make all things new. As I write this paragraph, Korean Christian missionaries have been taken captive by a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, simply for sharing the gospel. And, in a gesture of radical Islamic moderation and tolerance (!), are being executed by that same Taliban until its perverse demands are met. In short, threats to the gospel, its proclamation, and its messengers are, unfortunately, nothing new.
However, our focus here is not on political or secular persecution. Instead our focus is similar to the theological challenges faced by Luther, namely: threats from within the church to the very essence of the gospel, so that its clear proclamation is being eroded in the earnest desire to make the gospel more relevant. But who determines what is relevant? Who determines what “clear proclamation” is? The problem is that, in the passion for relevancy, we become the arbiters of what is relevant. We become the wise and witty ones who judge the gospel and all of Scripture, rather than being judged by them.
In order to avoid that pitfall, the purpose of this essay is to examine if and how the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and, for that matter, all of liberal Protestantism) might be guilty of the very error Luther decried in the opening quote of this paper. In fact, the primary focus of Luther’s life’s labor was to remedy that error. Similarly, one might go so far as to say that it ought to be the stewardship of every Lutheran – every true heir of Luther – to see if Luther’s concerns are equally valid today and then, if so, to endeavor to correct those abuses, insofar as one is able, wherever they might be found.
In short, the Reformation slogan, “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda” (the Church always reforming itself), is as pertinent today as it was in the 16th Century. Or, in the words of Luther’s hymn (LBW #230), may we pray,
Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word, curb those who by deceit and sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Your Son, and bring to naught all He has done.
Why did Scripture have such authority for Luther? What made it have primacy over the works of Plato or Aristotle or any of the other classics in literature and philosophy?
For Luther, God’s Word comes to us through the Bible to such an extent that the Bible can in fact be referred to as God’s Word.3 To be sure, Luther regarded some parts of the Bible more highly than others. For example, on the one hand, Luther was particularly fond of the Gospel of John, the Letters of Paul, and the first letter of Peter. And, on the other hand, he did not hold the Epistle of James in very high regard; in fact, he regarded it as “an epistle of straw”.4 This is not to say Luther saw nothing of value in James; it simply means Luther did not find the Gospel of Christ in it (which was for Luther the true litmus test of a book’s value), but instead it was merely more “law”, which is hardly salvific.5
Nevertheless, for Luther the Bible was the Word of God particularly in the sense that it, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, anticipates, proclaims, and witnesses to Christ.6
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16)
The sentence with which we closed the previous section raises for us two significant issues
First, the reader will notice Luther’s christocentric (Christ-centered) approach to the interpretation of Scripture – “it anticipates, proclaims, and witnesses to Christ.” For Luther, this was the chief function of Scripture and what makes it the Word of God -- that it anticipates, proclaims and witnesses to Christ!
This had a number of implications for Luther of which we can mention only several here. First of all, “Christ” means the gospel of the free mercy of God in Christ on which human salvation solely depends. Although for Luther the Apostle Paul apprehended and expressed this insight most clearly, he pointed to what may be called the unified apostolic proclamation of the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John and, again, Paul.
Another aspect of Luther’s Christocentric emphasis is that all appeals ultimately turn to Christ. Are there conflicts in the church regarding this or that practice? Are there those who would quote the Epistle of James as an argument for righteousness by works? If so, Luther advises us simply to turn to Christ. What did Jesus say? What did Jesus do? Listen to what Luther says in this regard:
“Therefore if He Himself is the price of my redemption, if He Himself became sin and a curse in order to justify and bless me, I am not put off at all by passages of Scripture, even if you were to produce six hundred in support of the righteousness of works and against the righteousness of faith, and if you were to scream that Scripture contradicts itself. I have the Author and the Lord of Scripture, and I want to stand on His side rather than believe you. Nevertheless, it is impossible for Scripture to contradict itself except at the hands of senseless and stubborn hypocrites. At the hands of those who are godly and understanding it gives testimony to its Lord. Therefore see to it how you can reconcile Scripture, which, as you say, contradicts itself. I for my part shall stay with the Author of Scripture.”7
Secondly, a point we will touch on here paraphrases the title of Juergen Moltmann’s book “The Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit.” What I want to lift up here is the fact that, for Luther, the Bible was and is under the power of the Holy Spirit. In his “Treatise on the Last Words of David” (2 Sam. 23:1-7), Luther comments on vs. 2: “The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, His word is upon my tongue,” saying,
“In the first place, he (David) mentions the Holy Spirit. To Him (the Holy Spirit) he (David) ascribes all that is foretold by the prophets. And to this and to similar verses St. Peter refers in 2 Peter 1:21, where he says: ‘No prophecy ever came by the impulse of man; but moved by the Holy Spirit, holy men of God spoke.’ Therefore we sing in the article of the Creed concerning the Holy Spirit: ‘Who spake by the prophets.’ Thus we attribute to the Holy Spirit all of Holy Scripture and the external Word and the sacraments, which touch and move our external ears and other senses. Our Lord Jesus Christ also ascribes His Word to the Holy Spirit, as He quotes Is. 61:1 in Luke 4:18: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, etc.,’ and as He quotes Is. 42:1 in Matt. 12:18: ‘Behold, My Servant whom I have chosen…. I will put My Spirit upon Him.’ And in Luke 1:35 we read that the Holy Spirit will overshadow Mary, that He will touch her, take her blood and impregnate her, so that the Lord is described as ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost.’”8 (emphasis mine)
The reader will take note of several things from this quote. First of all, Luther is not just talking about Scripture, but he bases all his commentary on Scripture itself.9 Then, on the basis of biblical witness, he affirms that Scripture itself is inspired by the Holy Spirit saying, Thus we attribute to the Holy Spirit all of Holy Scripture and the external Word and the sacraments, which touch and move our external ears and other senses.” In short, just as 2 Timothy 3:16 puts it, the witness of Bible is attributed to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit!
This is extremely important and quite contrary to the emphasis of much modern scholarship, which seems to want to give more credit to the individual authors of the individual books.10 How often do we hear, “The Prophet Isaiah says…” rather than “God speaking through the Prophet Isaiah says…”? Or, “Luke says…” rather than “Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, says…”? Tragically, what has been lost in this change of expression is Scripture’s and Luther’s emphasis on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the writing of the Bible. As a result, we have a book which is no different from any other book, namely, that which is nothing more than the result of the creative imaginations of its authors. “Why then,” a skeptical world asks, “should we pay any more attention to this book than to others?” Why then shouldn’t the frivolous “scholarship” of former Episcopal Bishop, John Shelby Spong, be just as authoritative as the Apostle Paul? Why not the deconstruction of Scripture by the Jesus Seminar and their reconstruction of it in their own image?
Luther, of course, would have none of this. He saw the inner consistency of the Bible, especially in its anticipation, proclamation, and witness to Christ, as a powerful witness to the work of the Holy Spirit. What’s more is the fact that, according to Luther, even we sinners “can boast of being catechumens and pupils of the apostles, in that we repeat and preach what we have heard and learned from the prophets and apostles…”11 In other words, as Jesus says in Luke 10:16 “Whoever listens to you listens to Me, and whoever rejects you rejects Me, and whoever rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me” (emphasis mine).
Such a statement makes sense only when we see the Holy Spirit, “who proceeds from the Father and the Son”, working through and bearing witness with the person of faith who proclaims Christ. Christ is present when we proclaim Him and His Word!
Keeping in mind all that has been said about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, several words of caution need to be added here.
Caveat #1: The first is based on Luther’s dealings with Thomas Muntzer. Muntzer was a gifted, educated, and charismatic preacher from Zwickau, a city in the southern portion of eastern Germany just north of the border between Germany and the present Czech Republic. In his own religious search and subsequent writings, Muntzer radicalized the statement in 2 Cor. 3:6 where Paul says, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” He did this to the point where he applied a radical polarization between spirit and flesh whereby he ultimately rejected not only infant baptism, but all forms of baptism saying that baptism was and is simply of the flesh. He even went so far as to reject the Bible itself, because in his view, the Bible got in the way of direct experience of the Holy Spirit. His attitude was, in effect, that we don’t need the Bible; we have the Spirit. Therefore, anyone who relied on the Bible was for Muntzer like the Scribes against whom Christ spoke. The Bible was for him mere paper and ink. “Bible, Babel, bubble,” he used to say.12
One wonders how, without the Scriptures, Muntzer would even know about such things as Jesus’ conflict with the Scribes. One also wonders how, without the biblical witness, he would know the Scribes were misguided in their views; but that’s an issue for another day. The point is that for Luther, yes, “letter” without “spirit” is dead, but the two should not be separated, as Muntzer does, any more than the soul is to be separated from the body.13 After all, did not the Word become flesh in Jesus Christ?
Nevertheless, Luther did acknowledge that, yes, there could be such a thing as an inner or direct call like that which God gave the prophets and the Apostle Paul, but his emphasis in these matters was radically different from that of Muntzer. In fact, he was so against Muntzer’s radical separation of Spirit and Word versus letter, flesh and spoken-word, that he said the following in the “Confession” portion of his Smalcald Articles:
“In these matters, which concern the external, spoken Word, we must hold firmly to the conviction that God gives no one His Spirit or grace except through or with the external Word which comes before. Thus we shall be protected from the enthusiasts – that is, from the spiritualists who boast that they possess the Spirit without and before the Word and who therefore judge, interpret, and twist the Scriptures or spoken Word according to their pleasure.” (emphasis mine)14
In short, the Holy Spirit always works in and through the external Word of Scripture and of preaching.
Caveat #2: It is precisely the external Word, the preached Word, inspired and based upon the apostolic witness of Scripture, that speaks inwardly to our hearts. In commenting on Psalm 118:6, Luther writes:
“It is the Lord Himself upon whom I called. In my sore distress He came to me through His eternal Word and Spirit. I scarcely know that I have been troubled. We must not, as the sectarians do, imagine that God comforts us immediately, without His Word. Comfort does not come to us without the Word, which the Holy Spirit effectively calls to mind and enkindles in our hearts, even though it has not been heard for ten years.”15
An implication of all this has to do with a sense of inner calling or inspiration that was so common among those like Muntzer whom Luther referred to as “the Enthusiasts” or “Sectarians”. In other words, one does not simply say he or she has had a spiritual experience and thereby has a new insight that will radically transform Christianity. Neither does one say, “I have my own sense of call and do not need yours; nevertheless, you must accept me as a pastor.” Luther acknowledged that one can have an inner sense of insight, but he placed greater emphasis on testing those insights via Scripture. One might experience a sense of calling to ministry, but Luther put an even greater emphasis on the outer or indirect call which comes from person to person, as when a congregation calls a pastor. In other words, an individual’s sense of inner call must be validated by the community of believers. Althaus comments,
“It (validation) takes place when others request an individual to preach, that is, to accept the office. The commandment of love requires him to accept.”16
In other words, a congregation or community of believers ought not extend a call on the basis of the externals of individual charisma or dynamism; the congregation ought extend a call on the basis of the competence of the individuals (after all, we should not make a people of low competence a pastor even if they claim to be “called”) and their commitment to exercise their calling in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the good order of the church (1Cor.14:40).
Caveat #3: Thirdly, it also needs to be said that, for Luther, the Holy Spirit does not work in any way that is contrary to the witness of Scripture. This only stands to reason. If Scripture is the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit in its anticipation of, witness to, and proclamation of Christ, then there is no way that God can contradict Himself. Luther writes:
“(I)t is impossible for Scripture to contradict itself except at the hands of senseless and stubborn hypocrites; at the hands of those who are godly and understanding it gives testimony to its Lord. Therefore see to it how you can reconcile Scripture, which, as you say, contradicts itself. I for my part shall stay with the Author of Scripture.”17
As the author of all truth, it would be contrary to God’s nature to contradict Himself.
Caveat #4: Biblical literalism (with which I include the debate over infallibility and inerrancy) is a very difficult issue to deal with in relation to Luther.18 On the one hand he could virtually paraphrase the bumper-sticker, “God said; I believe it; that settles it!” Paul Althaus quotes Luther as saying, “Because God says it, I will believe that it is so; I will follow the Word and regard my own thoughts and ideas as vain.”19
On the other hand, Luther was not uncritical of Scripture. As was mentioned earlier, he had his favorite books of the Bible and then there were some for which he had little regard. In addition, Luther also recognized inconsistencies, contradictions, and inaccuracies that were in the Bible.20 Neither was the Bible for Luther a scientific text book. As a medieval man, he simply accepted many of the conclusions of medieval science and astronomy.21 Nevertheless, it is important to remember here the rule of thumb Luther used when reading Scripture. His primary concern was for what might be called Scripture’s evangelical consistency – it anticipated, witnessed to, and proclaimed Christ (this was touched upon in the section on “Scripture as ‘Christocentric’”).22 In this, Scripture was for Luther without error, a point that provided some of the evidence for what he regarded as the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in directing Scripture’s authors.
So, we might summarize what has been said thus far as follows:
In short, the relationship between the Bible and the Holy Spirit may be put as follows: although they certainly are not identical, they are definitely inseparable.
When it comes to spiritual and theological discernment, there can be no doubt that Martin Luther was a genius of the highest order. One of the marks of his genius was his ability to cut through the theological obfuscations of his day in order to glean the true meaning of Scripture for himself and for all of Christianity, and thereby preserve its true treasure which is the gospel.
In order to see more clearly how Luther employed this gift of discernment, let us consider as an example how he differed with the Swiss Reformer, Huldrych Zwingli, with regard to their respective views of Christ’s “real presence” in the Sacrament. Briefly put, Zwingli argued for a symbolic interpretation of the Words of Institution at least in part because he could not conceive of how Christ could be present both in heaven and in the sacrament at the same time. Therefore, when Jesus says in the Words of Institution, “This is my body…” Zwingli interprets this to mean, “This symbolizes my body…” In other words, for Zwingli, Christ’s presence was at best symbolic and, from a human point of view, it was “an act of giving thanks.”23
Luther adamantly rejected Zwingli’s view. In fact, when it was arranged for Zwingli and Luther to meet in hopes of resolving their differences,24 not only was no resolution reached, they parted even more divided. The blame for this impasse is often placed in Luther’s lap for being so obstinate. It is said that, at the end when the failure of the colloquy was obvious, Zwingli approached Luther with tears in his eyes wanting, in spite of their differences, to shake Luther’s hand in a gesture of Christian love and fellowship. Luther refused.
If one accepts this version of what happened at Marburg, one might surely question Luther’s lack of graciousness at this point in the debate.25 Nevertheless, one ought at least to understand where Luther was coming from.
For Luther, this was not simply a matter of theological nit-picking. For Luther, Zwingli’s perspective on the Sacrament did no less than undermine the authority and reliability of the Gospel and Christ’s promises. Luther insisted that Christ had to be present in the sacrament for several reasons.
First, because He promised to be. The words of institution clearly state, “This is my body…” “This is my blood…”26 Therefore, Luther argued against Zwingli by insisting that, if we cannot trust that Christ is present in the sacrament as He promised to be, how can we trust that Christ will be with us at the time of death as He promises to be? If Christ is not present in the sacrament as He promises to be, how can we trust in Christ’s promise of the forgiveness of sins? Even as people of faith, we would face death unsure of the promise of eternal life and, even worse, we would face the prospect of standing before God in all His holiness and righteousness bereft of the confidence that our sin is covered by the righteousness of Christ. That, for Luther, was unthinkable. It robbed afflicted consciences, including his own, of the assurance and comfort of the grace of God through Jesus Christ.27 In short, Luther believed that Zwingli’s approach undermined the promises of Christ.
Zwingli appealed to John 6:63 where Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life,” and to 2 Cor. 3:6 where Paul writes, “…for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” For Zwingli these passages demonstrated that the meaning of “this is my body… this is my blood…” had to refer to a symbolic or spiritual meaning,28 because after all, the flesh/body profits nothing and it is the Spirit that gives life. Luther countered by arguing that Zwingli’s interpretation not only diminished the Sacrament but it also undermined faith in the incarnation – the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. In addition, Luther believed Zwingli’s interpretation fostered a dualism between spirit and flesh that was foreign to the New Testament worldview.29
Lastly, in Luther’s view, Zwingli’s interpretation undermined the faith and confidence we ought to have that God’s Word will do or accomplish what it promises. Zwingli argued that the body of Christ could not be both ascended into heaven and present in the sacrament at the same time.30 Luther was appalled at the thought of any such limitation being place on God and His Word. On another occasion Luther writes, “…faith in the Word must nevertheless be retained, and the promise must be stressed – namely, that it is true and dependable – even if the manner, time, occasion, place, and other particulars are unknown.”31 Faith, confidence, and trust in God to do what He promises, whether or not we can understand it, was at the core of Luther’s argument.
Therefore, when Christ says, “This is my body…” Who are we to limit Him who is the author of creation? Who are we to limit Him who was present with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus – one minute unrecognizable and the next moment recognizable; one moment visibly present and the next moment gone (Luke 24:13-31)? Again, Luther’s protest was in part because Zwingli’s interpretation was a matter of Zwingli, knowingly or unknowingly, trying to force God to fit his limited concepts and understanding.
And so, remembering the concern of Luther in the quote with which we began, notice that Zwingli’s emphasis regarding Christ’s real presence in the Sacrament is similar to that of St. Thomas Aquinas if only in the sense that Zwingli and Thomas both tried to make the gospel promise subject to and palatable to human reason, rather than submitting their intellects to and trusting in the divine promise, which itself always “passes all (human) understanding.”32 Unlike Thomas, Zwingli was not using Aristotelian metaphysics to promote his theory. Nevertheless, in both systems the Word of God, namely, His promise in the Words of Institution, was being made subject to human understanding and human philosophical categories, whether Zwingli’s or Aristotle’s or Thomas.’
For Luther, this was unacceptable. For him the Word of God to us via the Words of Institution could not be clearer.33 “This is my body… blood.” Not only that, the Word of God to us through Scripture was, for Luther, always reliable and always had primacy over any philosophical categories of human manufacture. How is it, one might ask, that Christ’s body and blood are present in the Sacrament? Well, we may not be able to explain how that happens, but we can trust in the promise, “This is my body… blood… given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus’ Word is sufficient!34
What’s more, if we cannot trust His presence, how can we trust His promise of forgiveness? Anything other than trusting the words is mere verbiage by which speakers seek to make themselves judge over God and His Word. To this we must, to borrow a phrase, “Just say, No!”
The purpose of this digression has not been to shift the focus of this essay to a discussion of Christ’s real presence in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Instead, it has been to demonstrate how Luther, in the midst of controversy, actually applied his understanding of the primacy of the Word and the primacy of Scripture over human reason, philosophy, and speculation.35 For Luther, God’s Word to us through Scripture is always reliable in spite of our human inability to understand or comprehend that Word.36 Thus, one of Luther’s abiding contributions to Christianity is his insistence that the Bible be the primary authority for matters regarding the faith, life, and proclamation of the individual Christian as well as the church. He makes this abundantly clear in his brief but famous “Here I Stand” speech.
“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, for I do not accept the authority of popes and councils as they have too often contradicted each other, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”37
Luther never departed from that conviction.
Another point for our consideration is the way Luther, as biblical scholar, sought to discern the clear meaning and teaching of Scripture. He utilized what is known as the principle of “Scripture interprets Scripture.” In other words, difficulty in interpreting one passage is made easier by reference to other passages that deal with a similar topic.
As was noted earlier in footnote #25, Luther resolved whatever ambiguity he might have felt regarding Christ’s real presence in the sacrament not only by referring to the Words of Institution, but also by referring to a similar passage from 1Cor. 10:16, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” How, Luther wondered, could there be participation in Christ’s body and blood if they were not actually present in the sacrament? True, one might counter that the “body” referred to here is “the body of Christ”, the church. But what about the blood? Even if one were to argue that Paul is referring to some kind of mystical participation in Christ’s suffering via the sacrament, this would not argue against His real presence in the sacrament. Christ’s body and blood would have to be truly present in some mystical sense.
This is the way Luther sought to resolve ambiguities in Scriptures. In other words, difficulties encountered in one passage are clarified by reference to others. Difficulty in understanding how Christ’s body can be present in the sacrament is resolved by referring to 1Cor. 10:16 and/or John 1:14. The clear and consistent witness of Scripture is the best way to resolve ambiguities.
Or, as an aside, consider for example the foods which were declared unclean in the Old Testament. Yes, Leviticus (chapters 11 & 12) talks about unclean foods and animals, but Jesus taught in Mark 18f., “‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and so passes on?’ (Thus He declared all foods clean.)” So, on the basis of Scripture interpreting Scripture there no longer remains any prohibition against any food, particularly because the words of Jesus have ultimate authority.
The same thing would be true with regard to the question of women in ministry. For on the one hand, in Paul’s first letter to Timothy he says women should be silent and he prohibits them from being in leadership over men (2:12; see also 1Cor. 14:34). On the other hand, Jesus had women disciples. Also, after the resurrection, He appeared first to women and they are told by an angel to take the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples who were hiding (Mark 16:7). Paul speaks of Priscilla (Prisca) as a fellow worker in the gospel (Rom. 16:3). Chloe also seems to have had a leadership role (1Cor. 1:11). There was also Lydia who was Paul’s first convert in Thyatira and brought her household to faith (Acts 16:14f). Scripture interprets Scripture and reveals that there is perhaps at most inconsistency in the New Testament about women in preaching and leadership roles, and in fact there seems to be considerable evidence that they were.
The point is that by the principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture, ambiguity is cleared up and, if there is evidence, former beliefs and practices may be changed – but only by a clear word, especially if that word or practice is from Jesus who, again, always has the ultimate authority.
In short, as Luther scholar, Gerhard Forde wrote:
“It is only on the basis of this external clarity (of scripture) that debate about doctrinal matters can be conducted. The debate can only proceed on the premise of the clarity and sufficiency of scripture, not on the assumption of unclarity or ambiguity so that appeal must be made to extra-scriptural institutions.”38
Professor Forde, in the quote above, has lifted up one of the foundation blocks on which the principle of “Scripture interpreting Scripture” is built, namely, Luther’s belief in the clarity of Scripture. One of the reasons Luther advocated basic education for the masses and then translated the Bible into German was to make its message available to the common people.39 He did not want the Bible left only in the hands of specialists or the church hierarchy because he had seen how easily its basic message had been abused by them, and probably would be again. For Luther, a peasant with basic reading skills and a heart for the Scriptures ought to be able to judge the inadequacy of a sermon by a learned pastor whether or not that pastor based the sermon on reason or philosophical concepts foreign to Scripture.40 Therefore, scripture’s clarity and consistency were, for Luther, available to anyone armed with a reasonable ability to read; this, for Luther, was a first line of defense against ecclesiastical abuse.41
But may the reader please take note: this line of defense would be impossible if the Scriptures were obscure and ambiguous as is so often touted by modern biblical scholarship. In Luther’s view, one shouldn’t have to rearrange the Gospel of John, as Bultmann did, in a vain attempt to discern the true meaning and context for the Transfiguration.42 One shouldn’t have to refer to obscure ancient texts to find the “true” meaning of two Greek words (malakos and arsenokoites) in order to discern the meaning of 1Cor. 6:9.43 One shouldn’t have to rely on the almost comical method of the “Jesus Seminar” with their casting color coded marbles (or “beads”, says John Dominic Crossan) in voting on what they think ought to be considered the authentic words of Jesus.44 One can rely on the clear and consistent witness of Scripture.45 Paul Althaus explains:
“The self-interpretation of the Holy Scriptures presupposes that the Scripture is clear in itself. The Roman assertion that the Scripture must be interpreted by the teaching office of the church is based on the presupposition that Scripture is an obscure book. Luther had to disagree with this. He based his assertion that the Scripture is clear and unequivocal on the Scripture itself. In view of his doctrine of Scripture, that is the only possible way. Just as Scripture validates itself, so it alone can bear witness to its clarity. Luther therefore proves the clear sense of Scripture from Scripture itself; for example, since Jesus and the apostles argued on the basis of Scripture it must be clear. In addition, he refers to the many Bible passages, for example, 2Peter 1:19 which refers to the prophetic word as “a light shining in a dark place”…
“Luther’s doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, of course, remains true to his understanding of the relationship between word and the Spirit. This is illustrated by his distinction between the ‘external’ and ‘inner’ clarity of Scripture, that is, between its objective and subjective clarity. Scripture in itself is clear. Wherever it is preached, it illuminates everything with a bright light and leaves nothing in the dark and open to misunderstanding. But this clarity ‘in Scripture itself as it lies there’ is to be distinguished from its clarity ‘inwardly in the heart’. The latter clarity is first given through the reception of the Spirit of God in the heart.
Left to themselves, all men have a darkened heart and could not see ‘one single iota in Scripture.’ ‘For the Spirit is necessary to understand all of Scripture as well as every part of it.’”46 (emphasis mine)
It is important to point out that Scripture’s clarity is most obvious to the person of faith who humbly bows him/herself before God and His Word. Those who do not believe, who have not bowed before God in humble submission, will mock the attitude of reverence and humility before Scripture that Luther here lifts up. They want God to accommodate Himself to them and their understanding. They want to question everything and become God’s judge; they want to judge His Word.
So, in closing this section, the reader is invited to consider the following quotes. Paul Althaus quotes Luther as follows,
“A believing, God-fearing heart does this: It asks first whether this is God’s word. When it hears that it is, it smothers the question about why this is useful or necessary. For it says with fear and humility, ‘Dear God, I am blind; truly I do not know what is or what is not useful to me, nor do I wish to know it. But I believe and trust in You as knowing and intending the very best for me according to Your divine goodness and wisdom. I am happy and satisfied to hear Your simple word and be informed by Your will.’”47
Althaus further comments: “Luther is concerned with nothing less than the sovereignty of God’s Word and will, in opposition to all human claims to insight into the religious necessity of what God does. Whatever God’s Word says and gives is good for us. We may not, however, turn this standard around and measure and control God’s word by asking how useful it is. On the contrary, that would be an expression of the original sin of human self-assertion which reverses the relationship between God and man.” 48 To reiterate a quote from Luther note above in footnote #16:
“(I)t is impossible for Scripture to contradict itself except at the hands of senseless and stubborn hypocrites; at the hands of those who are godly and understanding it gives testimony to its Lord. Therefore see to it how you can reconcile Scripture, which, as you say, contradicts itself. I for my part shall stay with the Author of Scripture.”
In bringing this section to a close, let us summarize what we have asserted thus far about basic Lutheran principles for use in doing deliberation over difficult issues:
In undertaking any task, it is always helpful to have a full toolbox at one’s disposal. Nonetheless, there are tools that are more essential than others. Carpenters have their own essential tools. Plumbers have theirs. Last but not least, Lutherans doing theological deliberation on difficult issues ought to have the basic tools outlined above.
These tools ought, of course, to be employed to aid in the discernment we are about as a denomination regarding human sexuality. However, they will also serve the dual function of being a measuring stick of sorts to see how well we are employing these essential tools of our tradition for the discernment process in which we are engaged. The possibility is, of course, that we will discover our use of the tools does not measure up; that we have been using a plumber’s tools for a carpenter’s task. That would be a shame, but if we are using the wrong tools for the task at hand, it is better to find out now before the task is done and we discover we have done the job poorly. Maybe that is in part what Luther meant when he said in the opening quote, “The neglect of Scripture, even by spiritual leaders, is one of the greatest evils in the world.” May that not be said of us.
We now set out to apply the aforementioned tools to the analysis of the methodology presently employed by the ELCA in doing its reflection on matters of sexuality. While they may not make for an exhaustive toolbox, they still are the best tools available for the job.
Regarding Scripture, article 2.03 of the ELCA Constitution says the following: “This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.”50 The model constitution for ELCA congregations has the same statement of faith.
In other words, although there may be concerns for some regarding the word “inspired”, whether it goes too far or far enough, we are for the most part starting off on the right foot. If we take this statement seriously, we supposedly have at least a compass that is centered on “true north”, so to speak, as opposed to Captain Jack Sparrow’s compass which would take us in the direction of whatever whim happens to capture our hearts.
In addition, we must ask what role Luther might have in the life of this church. Our constitution, following Luther, points to Scripture as the norm for the faith, life, and proclamation of the ELCA. That same constitution also states in section 2.06:
“This church accepts the other confessional writings in the Book of Concord, namely, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord, as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church.”
And the Formula of Concord states:
“Since Dr. Luther is rightly to be regarded as the most eminent teacher of the churches which adhere to the Augsburg Confession and as the person whose entire doctrine in sum and content was comprehended in the articles of the aforementioned Augsburg Confession and delivered to Emperor Charles V, therefore the true meaning and intention of the Augsburg Confession cannot be derived more correctly or better from any other source than from Dr. Luther’s doctrinal and polemical writings” (SD VII, 41)
It is incumbent upon us to ask what role he and his insights continue to play in the life of this church.
So the question is: how well do we actually live out the stated commitment to Scripture as “the authoritative source and norm for the faith and life of the church”? How well do we honor our constitutional commitments to the Lutheran Confessions as valid interpretations of the faith of the church, including the wisdom and discernment of Martin Luther? Or, referring to our metaphor above about the tools and the tool box, it appears the ELCA has the right tools at its disposal to do the job, but is it using them properly, or might it be turning to another toolbox poorly suited to the task?
In seeking to answer these questions, I will focus primarily on excerpts from the study documents, “Journey Together Faithfully”, parts 2 & 3. I do so because these study documents are not theology in a vacuum; they are where and how the ELCA does theology vis-à-vis Scripture. We are not just looking at what the ELCA says in the ivory tower of Constitutional Statements about faith; we are looking at how those Statements are being lived out regarding the issues at hand. In short, is the ELCA adhering to its own Faith Statement in a faithful manner, or is it merely giving lip-service to the authority of Scripture, the Confessions, and so on?
In passing let me state that there is no way I can within the parameters of this essay offer a thorough or comprehensive review of JTF-2 or JTF-3. There is simply too much material. Therefore, I propose to examine excerpts from JTF 2 & 3, particularly sections that deal primarily with Scripture, as samples of how ELCA is presently applying the Scriptural norm. Along the way, it will hopefully become clear as to how adequate and faithful these applications are to Luther and the Lutheran Confessions.
We begin our analysis by considering the first session of JTF-2. If the reader were to turn to page 7, s/he would find the following statement: “We study sexuality together as the baptized, the communion of saints, a people justified by grace for Christ’s sake through faith. Such study is a response to our call to engage in moral deliberation that is guided by God’s word in law and gospel”.
This is a wonderful statement with which to begin JTF-2. It bases our deliberation on the covenantal claim God has made upon us through our baptism into Christ. If I may paraphrase, it plainly grounds us in the fact that we are no longer our own; we have been bought with a price (1Cor. 6:19f). It also grounds us in God’s act of “justification by grace for Christ’s sake”. And, lastly, it acknowledges the fact that we have been called to engage in moral deliberation over difficult issues “guided by God’s word in law and gospel”. That is an excellent way to start.
However, things start going down hill in the very next paragraph which begins as follows: “We are part of God’s good creation. We are created as sexual beings and we are redeemed as sexual beings.” There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with those two sentences per se, the problem is that there is neither any discussion of what these significant statements mean, nor are there any scriptural references to substantiate them or give them context. In fact, the only biblical reference that is used in the entire paragraph is with regard to being a “new creation” from 2Cor. 5:17. There is no discussion about what it means to be a part of God’s creation, which was created “good” (Gen. 1:4; 10; 12; 18; 21; 25; 31). Why God called it “good”, JTF-2 never tells us; there is not even any discussion of this fundamental concept. Neither is there any discussion of sin or how it entered the world and corrupted God’s good creation.
Then we are told that we have been created as sexual beings. This is of course true, but again there is no discussion of the significant verses from Genesis 1:26 & 27, or any of the other passages based on them, which give us a rather clear idea about what God’s intention was in creating us “male and female”.52 And so one wonders in exasperation, how on earth are we to have an informed discussion on the issues when statements are made without substantiation and a single biblical passage is quoted out of context? Is this the way we honor our commitment to “Scripture Alone”? This certainly is not in accord with the “principles” we identified at the conclusion of part 1.
If all of that isn’t enough, the paragraph concludes with this sentence, “Regardless of our different sexual orientations or views about sexual orientation and sexual conduct, our unity comes from Christ and his gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.” But wait a minute! How did we come up with that conclusion? The Augsburg Confession states, “It is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian Church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine word” (Art.VII #2). However, there are serious questions remaining about whether or not the statement above about “sexual orientations” is consistent with a “pure understanding” of the Gospel and with Scripture. Granted, we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8), but there are still many questions about the biblical understanding of homosexuality, not to mention genetic and psychological factors. In addition, living by grace through faith does not mean we have carte blanche to embody whatever sexual orientation we want. Poly- or omni-sexuality, anyone?
More to the point is the fact that within only a few short paragraphs JTF-2 has made assumptions and sweeping statements that are at best unsubstantiated. We wonder: are these statements and assumptions more in concert with the abuses Luther decried in the opening quote of this essay than they are in the faithful use of Scripture? Time will tell.
As we move on, even more troubling is the emphasis this first section puts on subjectivity and “experience” over the Bible. The section is titled “Sexuality and Faithfulness: Our Experiences”. Notice the lofty position that is given to “experience” in this discussion. Not only that, but the discussion then turns to a listing of various “experiences” regarding homosexuality – eight possibilities are included. Each of the eight possibilities begins with some variation on, “Some in our church have experienced…” The spectrum ranges from…
It is perhaps good to list the various attitudes present in the debate, but does that mean that all have equal validity? Are all equally faithful to Scripture? Is it merely the experience of some that homosexual activity as contrary to God’s will, or, is that what Scripture teaches? The point is that biblical witness is here being reduced merely to one of several options in the discussion. This seems eerily reminiscent of Luther’s earlier complaint:
“The neglect of Scripture, even by spiritual leaders, is one of the greatest evils in the world. Everything else, arts or literature, is pursued and practiced day and night, and there is no end of labor and effort; but Holy Scripture is neglected as though there were no need of it.”
We might simply add “experience” and “subjectivity” to the items being practiced “day and night”. As such, it is distressing that there is not even any discussion of how “experience” ought to interplay with the scriptural witness, or which ought to have the greater authority. Yes, we are reminded that “we humbly seek to understand God’s will for our lives as it is expressed in the Bible” but the way that works itself out in the actual text of JTF-2 leaves us wondering which has greater primacy, Scripture or experience? Right after we are reminded humbly to seek God’s will for our lives, we are drawn into the subjectivity of how “experience” shapes our interpretations.
“We need to be aware of how our experiences in life and the opinions they shape affect our interpretation of the Bible, and we need to examine our life experiences based on our understanding of what the Bible says.”
It is good to be reminded that the subjectivity of our experiences can influence our interpretation. However, let us not forget that, if we take Luther’s principles of interpretation seriously, there is an objective text with a clear meaning. Neither ought we forget that the subjectivity of personal experience was precisely what Luther was arguing against vis-à-vis Thomas Muntzer. Muntzer, too, wanted to throw out Scripture in favor of immediate personal experience. Zwingli wanted to throw out a passage he didn’t like and couldn’t understand (i.e., “This is my body…”). So, is this the way we are to do theological deliberation? There is a lot more to JTF-2 than session 1 so perhaps we ought to reserve judgment.
The first paragraph of this session begins with:
“Another way to speak of our unity in Christ through baptism is to use the language of the Apostles’ Creed where we confess that we believe in the ‘holy catholic church, the communion of saints.’”
So far so good; but then the paragraph ends with the following statement: “God is the one who comes to us and who by His grace makes us who we are.” In light of the present debate, such a statement is ill-advised, at best ambiguous and is potentially misleading. In other words, are the authors of JYF2 making an argument for saying God made homosexuals the way they are via genetics53 or that God makes us who we are as the church? The statement is very ambiguous and the authors should have known better and avoided language that can so easily give the impression of double meaning and might be perceived as leading the study to a predetermined conclusion.
Moving on, JTF-2, basing its comments on Genesis 1: 26-28 and Genesis 2: 18-24, goes on to say, “The creation accounts take for granted that sexual relations will be between a man and a woman” (p.12). This is good as far as it goes; it takes seriously the clear teaching of Scripture. However, JTF-2 then muddies the waters by adding, “Other interpreters… point out that part of God’s intent in the creation is to provide for companionship”. JTF-2 then goes on to conclude, “While the partnership portrayed in Genesis 2 is a heterosexual one, the basic need for companionship reflected here is one that seems relevant to the lives of gay and lesbian people as well.” Apparently, if you cannot have both of the purposes God intended, one out of two ain’t bad?!!?
To be clear, yes, God did say, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” The problem is that JTF-2 is lifting the phrase about companionship out of context. It fails to take into account the clearly stated divine intention to create human beings “male and female” and that they were to be “fruitful and multiply”. The divine plan seems to be clearly stated here in the context of the full passage, particularly in conjunction with Gen. 1:26-28.
In addition, companionship between homosexuals is not the issue here. No one is saying that homosexuals cannot have companionship. It is the normalization of homosexual behavior within the church – that is the issue here. We are not here even discussing the debates within the culture over secular “blessings” of same-sex unions and whether health benefits ought to be provided for same-sex partners as would be provided for an employee’s heterosexual spouse. Those are topics for another day. The issue before us is: to what extent if any should the ELCA normalize homosexual behavior?
Moving on to the “Interpretation” section, JTF2 makes two applications of what it had just discussed, applications which it says “may be agreed to by people holding different views on homosexuality” (p.13).
Time and space do no allow us to dissect every aspect of these “interpretations”, so let us simply consider a few of the comments.
First, JTF-2 asserts, “God’s creation is not presented as a finished product, but leaves room for further creative developments.” How did JTF-2 come up with that? Scripture talks about creation, fall and redemption. Nowhere does it talk about “further creative developments” (some of the comments in this section might also apply to JTF-3, Session One where on page 12 it speaks of God “still creating”.) This assertion appears to be based on Process Philosophy (a philosophy based on the writings of Alfred North Whitehead and his followers). Process thought is a fine philosophy worthy of consideration. However, as we discovered in Part 1 of this study, the problem for Luther and for us is when we use a philosophy foreign to Scripture as the template with which Scripture is interpreted. This, as we saw, was Luther’s problem with St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomas attempted to make biblical faith fit Aristotelian categories. Aristotle was brilliant and so was Thomas, but this philosophical system was inadequate for dealing with biblical faith. The same is true for those who, like Bultmann, tried to do biblical interpretation by way of the categories of existentialist philosophy a`la Heidegger; or, in this case, process philosophy; or those who attempt to study the Bible by means of deconstructionism a’la Derrida.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with studying these philosophies. It is good to be in dialogue with culture and the thought trends that are out there. In fact, we need to be aware of them so we can respond accordingly. However, it is one thing to be conversant with these trends in thought but quite another to try to make the biblical message conform to them. It just doesn’t work.
With that in mind, theologically JTF-2 commits the fatal blunder of trying to make Scripture fit some foreign template and agenda, be it process thought or other. Where does Scripture say that “creation is not presented as a finished product, but leaves room for further creative developments”? The Bible tells us that God rested on the seventh day, so how did JTF-2 get the idea creation wasn’t finished? Yes, sin entered the world which means God began the process of redemption; but creation not finished?
Therefore, in what way does JTF-2 want us to consider that God is “still creating”? Since the advent of homo-sapiens on the scene, have there been any new species? No. Of course, there have been changes within species, some brought about by selective breeding techniques that have been used with animals (new varieties of dogs, cows, horses, etc.), but new species? No.
Or, is JTF-2 talking about the processes of the natural order, such as earthquakes and erosion which makes for valleys? Might these constitute on-going creation as JTF-2 asserts? No. Instead they are, as Paul says in Rom. 8:22, a symptom of creation groaning in travail as it longs for redemption, but “on-going creation”? No.
Then there is the assertion in item #2 of the “Interpretation” section which says, “God involves created beings in the ongoing process of the creation.” Does that make us “co-creators with God? That may be a nice romantic notion for some, but where does it say that in the Bible? Scripture simply tells us clearly that we are given stewardship over what God has created – Jesus’ parables underscore this message (e.g., Luke 20:9-19).
Clearly, the problem is that JTF-2 fails to distinguish adequately between what it means to have “creativity” (as persons created in the image of God, we have creativity) and creation itself.54 There is a radical difference! We can be “creative”, positively or negatively, with the things God has given us, but the ability to create, as in creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing” – Rom. 4:17), is a characteristic that belongs only to God. But even more important regarding our discussion, JTF-2’s failure to make this distinction properly means that, at least at this point, its interpretation is out of harmony with biblical witness.
Lastly for this section, notice the application JTF-2 makes as it wants us to consider that:
“It may be that changing sexual orientations are a part of the ongoing creative process and we will need to study them carefully to discern whether they have an appropriate place within God’s good creation.”
So, where has all this talk about “on-going creation” and human beings as “co-creators” taken us? It has taken us to the place where we on the basis of JTF-2’s logic are re-defining what the Bible says about the created order of things – and all of this based on incredibly poor hermeneutics (i.e., interpretive practices)! The reader will please notice the faulty assumptions upon which this conclusion is based, some of which were pointed out in the paragraphs above. Only now they are taken to their quixotic conclusion. In short, it is the failure to take God’s sovereign Word and will seriously. It is the desire to make God and His Word palatable to human sensibilities. It is the longing to be judge over God’s Word to us through Scripture.
Whatever the philosophical basis JTF-2 assumes for making this statement (“It may be that changing sexual orientations are a part of the ongoing creative process…”), it certainly isn’t biblical in any distinctly Lutheran sense. We can say this because as we noticed at the conclusion to part 1 of this study, when we look to Scripture as the inspired Word of God, we recognize that it is:
If those conclusions are at all accurate, then what a radical departure JTF-2 has made from the theology of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions! How could this have happened unless the authors made the same error Luther lamented in our opening paragraph?
“The neglect of Scripture, even by spiritual leaders, is one of the greatest evils in the world. Everything else, arts or literature, is pursued and practiced day and night, and there is no end of labor and effort; but Holy Scripture is neglected as though there were no need of it.”
There is no need to go into sessions 3-6 of JTF-2. All build on the foundation already laid out in sessions one and two. However, as in actual building, if the foundation is weak, the rest of the structure, no matter how well laid out, is likewise in danger of collapse (see Matt. 7:24-27). That is precisely the problem with sessions 3-6. However, not only are they built on the poor foundation of sessions 1-2, but they themselves have their own internal inadequacies and are weak on their own merits. Analysis of those weaknesses is provided elsewhere.55
If studying JTF-2 was difficult, whether in full or just the excerpts provided above, “Journey Together Faithfully, part 3” (JTF-3), at roughly 140 pages, is all the more difficult. The only thing we can do, as we did above, is examine a few excerpts through the lens of the principles we have already identified (see the summary for Part 1).
After an opening paragraph which calls for “openness” and “humility”,56 Session 1 of JTF-3 begins with a section titled, “We Listen to God in the Scriptures” (p.10). It then goes on to say, “We seek to understand how God would have us live as sexual creatures in such a way that our neighbors, communities, and the world will be blessed.” This is, of course, the right way to begin – seeking God’s Word in Scripture to discern what is His revealed purpose for our lives as sexual beings.
JTF-3’s stated purpose is to understand “how God would have us live as sexual persons in such a way… that the world will be blessed.” It begins this exploration by looking at Proverbs 1:7 where we read that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Again, it is good to begin in this way – in “the fear of the LORD.” In this day when the fear of the LORD has been so watered down, we are reminded what Jesus taught in Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (see also Luke 12:4f). And so, we begin in the fear of the LORD.
Then JTF-3 reminds us of the importance of seeking wisdom. This too is good.
But then JTF-3 does something strange. First of all, it says, “(We) use our experience to test our understandings of what God’s mercy and righteousness mean for our lives together as sexual creatures” (p.10). What a strange way for Lutherans to begin (“our experience”, “our understandings”, “for our lives”)! What is strange about this is that it moves from the objective biblical text to personal understandings which of course relativize the text and make it subjective. In other words, JTF-3 proposes that we begin and end with subjectivity; it appears to be putting personal perceptions virtually on par with biblical witness presumably, so the argument goes, because we only see the world through our own perceptions. Yet, we are reminded in Scripture to: “Train up children in the way they should go, and when they are old they will not depart from it” (Prob.22:6). The point being that the training is to help focus our minds so we don’t have the chaos of mere relativism.
Be that as it may, as we have seen, the relativity of perceptions is quite contrary to the approach to interpretation that Luther and Lutherans have traditionally employed. Luther always looked to the objective text and took a stand against the subjectivism of Muntzer and others. Luther believed that, in spite of our subjective perceptions, there is an objective text to which we can turn and to which we are obligated. With this, and coupled with the tools of “Scripture Interprets Scripture,” we can discern the clear meaning of a text. Luther writes:
“It (scripture) wants to be interpreted by comparison of passages from everywhere, and understood under its own direction. The safest of all methods for discerning the meaning of Scripture is to work for it by drawing together and scrutinizing passages.”57
JTF-3 appears to be putting way too much emphasis, not on Scripture, but on the subjectivity/ relativity of one’s perceptions.
Next JTF-3 seemingly defends its dependence on the relativity of perceptions with a “touch-and-go”58 reference to Luke 10 in which Jesus is put to the test by a “lawyer”. I say, “touch-and-go” because the reference is so fleeting it’s hard to know exactly why the reference is given. It’s almost as if to say, “Dear reader, don’t stay too long with this text lest you discern our inadequate rendering of it, that is, the eisegesis we are employing.”59 Be that as it may, JTF-3 takes the dialogue from Luke 10:25ff and says, “We must not only ask, ‘What is written in the law?’ but also ‘What do you read there?’ or to translate more literally, ‘How do you read?’”
It is not at all clear why JTF-3 refers to Luke 10:25ff. At first it refers to “the interpreter of the law (who) was trying to justify himself” but it then goes on to warn against proof-texting -- that is, taking a verse out of context in order to make it fit or justify whatever one wants.
This warning is good; too many people over the years have taken numerous Bible passages out of context and then abused them. For example, how often has “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Matt.5:38) been taken out of context as a justification for revenge.
However, part of the problem is that the debate between Jesus and the lawyer was not about “proof-texting” per se. The lawyer and Jesus were not quoting Old Testament passages back and forth to each other. Instead, the lawyer, wanting to put Jesus to the test, simply asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Notice, there is no proof-texting here. Regardless of the lawyer’s motivation, his question is clear and direct. And Jesus responds, not by quoting Scripture to the lawyer but by turning the tables on him and asking, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” The lawyer answers with the well-known double commandment to love God and neighbor (Lev.19:18; Deut.6:5). Jesus simply says, “Do this and you will live.” It is only then that the lawyer, desiring to justify himself asks, “And who is my neighbor?” to which Jesus responds by telling the parable of “The Good Samaritan”. There is no proof-texting here.
As an aside, the reader will please recall that JTF-3’s purpose at this point seems to be twofold: 1. To warn about any proof-texting that leads to legalism. It seems to be saying that we must beware of lifting verses out of context so that we do not make a “Moses” (a new lawgiver) out of the Christ and the gospel. 2. JTF-3 also seems concerned about defending the validity of subjective interpretation as to how different individuals read and understand various biblical texts. JTF-3 lifts up the question where Jesus asks the lawyer, “How do you read?” thus implying the legitimacy of subjective interpretation.
The problem is, however, that JTF-3 stops short in its analysis. It stops with what appears to be the affirmation of subjectivity in the question, “How do you read?” However, if we were to read only two more verses, we would find that, after the lawyer cites the double love command, Jesus says, “You have answered rightly.” Jesus thereby seemingly nixes the very subjectivity for which JTF-3 is arguing. In other words, Jesus clearly indicates that there is a right reading of Scripture, as well as a wrong one.
The ironic thing is that JTF-3 is warning us about the dangers of proof-texting, yet it appears to be guilty of that very thing. As such, it missed a very important nuance of Luke 10:25-28. In fact, the only difference is that rather than proof-texting for legalism, JTF-3 has proof-texted for subjectivism and libertinism.
Nevertheless, contrary to JTF-3, there is nothing about “proof-texting” in Luke 10:25-28. In addition, the only thing in the text about self-justification, to which JTF-3 vaguely refers, is when the lawyer takes on the role of a cynic acting as if the meaning of the quotes from Leviticus and Deuteronomy were not in themselves self-evident.
As was mentioned, JTF-3 then goes on to make the case that people have often sought to proof-text passages in order to make a case for legalism of some sort. It says, “Paul often argued with people who had an abundance of proof texts, but he testified that God ‘has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6).” This is a bold assertion and it may be true. However, no reference is given for where Paul argues against those who were “proof-texting” their positions. JTF-3 simply identifies proof-texting with legalism and then reminds us that Paul said, “the letter (of the law) kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
It needs to be said, however, that although there may on occasion be an overlap between proof-texting and legalism, the two concepts are not identical. In fact, one might attempt to proof-text virtually anything from legalism to libertinism.
Then, JTF-3 quotes Luther in one of his “Prefaces to the New Testament,”
“See to it, therefore, that you do not make a Moses out of Christ, or a book of laws and doctrines out of the gospel... [for] the gospel is not a book of law, but really a preaching of the benefits of understanding Christ, shown to us and given to us for our own possession, if we believe.”60
This is an important warning, but one wonders why the authors were so one-sided and did not include equally the important warnings from Luther about licentiousness and antinomianism. Did not Luther also say: “(L)ike pigs and dogs, they (preachers and listeners) remember no more of the Gospel than this rotten, pernicious, shameful, carnal liberty. As it is, the common people take the Gospel altogether too lightly…”61 ?
Both Scripture and Luther devote a fair amount of ink and space to warning about both extremes. Why did JTF-3 lift up one and not the other?
To be fair, JTF-3 appears to recover from this oversight when on page 11 it acknowledges, “God’s law is God’s will.” It goes on to discuss two uses of law, namely, one for civil order and another to reveal sin. It also lifts up the passage in Matthew 5:18, where Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” And then, lastly, JTF-3 invites us to study Galatians where it points out that Paul, “is a strong advocate of God’s law, against ‘fornication, impurity, licentiousness... those who do such things (among others) will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (5:19, 21).”
It is good to have JTF-3 acknowledge the importance of “law” and it is good to have the studies that are provided on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians with which each session is to begin (it is not possible to critique those studies at this time). Nevertheless, one wonders if the JTF-3 authors might be betraying their bias for why they chose to study Galatians because even though they have said “Paul is a strong advocate for the law,” they underscore even more strongly that Galatians is sometimes referred to as, “The Magna Carta of Christian Freedom”.
Well, it certainly is that – and for good reason! Paul in his letter to the Galatians is confronting the temptation of his readers to retreat back into the comfort and familiarity of Jewish law and tradition. Likewise, there is the temptation for Christians to retreat to the easy answers of legalism. That is why this is a concern worthy of being lifted up in any generation.
Yet, one wonders why JTF-3 stopped there. As was mentioned earlier, Scripture, and thus Luther, were both concerned not only about legalism but also about licentious behavior and attitudes. And what bothered them both even more was the fact that such behaviors and attitudes were justified by their perpetrators all in the name of Christian freedom.
For example, much of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians deals with the temptation to abuse Christian freedom. Similarly Galatians 5:13 warns: “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh”. In fact, in 1Corinthians 6:9f. Paul addresses even more directly some of the issues before us when he says,
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (NKJV).62
I do not raise this text from 1Corinthians 6 at this time to argue for judgment/damnation or grace. I leave that up to God. I am simply pointing out that in addition to legalism, there is considerable concern in Scripture and Lutheran theology about licentiousness and the arguments of those who would try to justify such behavior.
What’s more, JTF-3: Session One has called us to deliberate on the issue of sexuality from the perspective of Scripture – particularly with the goal of making a considered decision regarding normalizing homosexuality. Therefore, with that as its stated goal, my question is: how is it that JTF-3 has failed to consider with equal seriousness passages that deal so directly with the topic? This is particularly disturbing in light of the recognized Lutheran interpretive principle regarding the clear and consistent witness of Scripture.
Instead, JTF has consistently emphasized the freedom of the Christian almost to the neglect of the responsibility of the Christian. For example, in Session Eight of JTF-3 we find the following.
“Paul’s ringing statement, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’ (Galatians 5:1) is echoed by Luther’s assertion that, ‘A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.’ These affirmations remind us that we live in the gospel, free in Christ from the condemnation of the law (JTF-3 p.68).”
As was mentioned earlier, little is said here about context. In fact, according to JTF-3, the only qualifier for the exercise of Christian freedom is the statement, “Freedom, however, is not license. Free from the condemnation of the law, we are free to serve our neighbor as Christ has loved us” (JTF-3 p.68).
The qualifier mentioned is true, but it is too utilitarian; it reduces God’s Word and God’s demand to a mere practicality that we can readily see and appreciate. As was footnoted earlier with regard to Luther’s debate with both Thomistic theology and that of Zwingli, Paul Althaus writes,
“Luther felt his opponents were rationalists who wanted to learn to understand God’s clear word with their human thoughts in terms of their concepts of what is possible and impossible, useful and not useful” (see #30).
Similarly, JTF-3 has here reduced New Testament morality to utilitarian motives and benefits derived from their own “human thoughts and concepts” of what is useful. This is most disappointing!
The very title of this essay, “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word… An Essay on the Role of Scripture in Lutheran Deliberation”, has set the agenda for this entire endeavor. Let’s review what we have uncovered:
There are numerous other inadequacies of the entire JTF enterprise, too many to enumerate here. Nevertheless, on the basis of what has been offered, one might legitimately wonder if the ELCA is in a constitutional crisis of sorts, especially with regard to its faith statement. In reading JTF-2 & 3, it is hard to see how the ELCA constitutional faith commitments are being kept. In fact, it’s hard to see any traditionally Lutheran biblical or confessional standard has been applied here.
So, what is the ELCA trying to accomplish through this whole JTF endeavor? There is the humorous anecdote about W. C. Fields, the late comic and alleged atheist. Apparently, his nephew walked in on him once and found him reading the Bible. Surprised, the nephew asked, “Uncle, what are you doing?” Fields replied, “Looking for loopholes.” One gets the impression that is what is happening in this endeavor – JTF-3 is looking for loopholes in Scripture so they can do what they wanted to do in the first place.
The opening paragraph to this essay has the following statement, “To be sure, they (Luther’s opponents) might give lip service to the importance of the Bible – proof-texting conclusions they had already come to under the inspiration of other sources, but Scripture was neither the anchor nor the driving force behind their intellectual meanderings.” Unfortunately, that also seems to be the case for the entire JTF project, including JTF-3. Or, as Paul Althaus puts it with regard to the “spiritual” interpretations of Muntzer and others, “In so-called “spiritual” interpretation, each one can read his own spirit into the words. Scripture loses its clear meaning in the process.”63
2. Pastor Ron Marshall, in an excellent pamphlet titled, Making A New World: How Lutherans Read the Bible, (Seattle, WA: Certus Sermo, 2003), lifts up the fact that Lutherans highly regard Luther’s writings because, quoting the Book of Concord, we deem him as a “most eminent teacher” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, article VII, #41). Marshall’s is an excellent resource. If you would like to order a copy, Pr. Marshall can be reached by email at email@example.com or at First Lutheran Church of West Seattle – 4105 California Ave. SW 98116-4101 or at (206) 935-6530.
3. Pr. Ron Marshall, in a section of the work cited above, p.21-24, notes how Luther clearly spoke of the Bible as God’s Word. He quotes Luther, “The Scriptures… are God’s Scriptures and God’s Word” (LW34, p. 227.
4. Luther writes, “In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” LW35, p.362.
5. Paul Althaus writes: “Luther recognizes that the intention of the epistle (James) was good but James was not up to the task.” Althaus, Paul, The Theology of Martin Luther, Trans. Robert C. Schultz, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), p.84.
6. Althaus: “For Luther the self-interpretation of Scripture through the Spirit which speaks in it means that Scripture interprets itself in terms of Christ as its center, that is christocentrically. In and of itself that thought was not new in the church. Traditional theology knew that Christ is the center or Scripture. And Erasmus also agreed with the principle that Scripture is to be interpreted christocentrically. What is really at stake here is the meaning of this principle. One can do as Erasmus or the late medieval radicals in their own way did and understand Christ as a teacher of virtue or as an ethical prophet or lawgiver. For Luther “Christ” means the gospel of the free mercy of God in Christ on which alone man’s salvation depends.” Op. cit., p. 79.
7. LW26, p. 295
8. LW15, p.275.
9. Althaus, op. cit. p.78.
10. Pastor Ron Marshall quite rightly notes this difference between Luther and modern scholarship when he comments in a footnote, “So, Willi Marxsen is wrong when he argues that ‘the New Testament was the work of the church which decided for itself what should be authoritative.” Marshall, op. cit., p. 2; footnote #5.
11. LW15, p. 276.
12. Bainton, p. 260f.
13. Bainton adds a comment that is helpful. “Luther freely avowed his weakness (i.e., his lack of direct spiritual experience) and his need for (i.e., his dependency on) historic revelation. Therefore he would not listen to Muntzer though ‘he had swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all.’ At this point lies much of the difference not only between Muntzer and Luther, but between modern liberal Protestantism and the religion of the founders.” Bainton, p. 261.
14. Smalcald Articles, Art.VIII, #3. Tappert, T. G. 2000, c1959. The Book of Concord: The confessions of the evangelical Lutheran church. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, p.312.
15. LW14, p. 62.
16. Althaus, p.329.
17. LW26, p.295. See also footnote #20.
18. Pr. Marshall shares the comments of several prominent Lutherans regarding the issue of biblical inerrancy. “The now fabled Lutheran sage, Joseph Sittler, wrote that ‘to assert the inerrancy of the text of Scripture is… a departure from the central principle of Lutheranism.’ Carl E. Braaten agrees that the Bible’s authority is not of a juridical kind; it is not a book of… inerrant reports.’ Eric Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson expand on this juridical sense of inerrancy: ‘The Scriptures… have this legal authority in the church only because of their liberating authority. Where the Scriptures do not in fact have authority as promise, any attempt to claim legal force for them is an arbitrary imposition… One error in this connection is so thoroughly discredited that we mention it now only for old time’s sake: any theory of Scripture’s propositional inerrancy. An authority of necessarily affirmed propositions is legal in its very form. Applied to the whole content of Scriptures, it embraces their proclamation of promise in legal authority and so inverts the proper order.’”
Marshal responds to all this saying, “But this cannot be right. Luther held both – the legal and liberating authority of Holly Scriptures – without being inconsistent or inverting the proper order. He held the former – in his inerrancy formulations – in order to protect the latter. Without that formal, legal authority of inerrancy looming over the Church, Christians go nuts – playing fast and loose with Scriptures. ‘Like pigs and dogs, they remember no more of the Gospel than this rotten, pernicious, shameful, carnal liberty’ (BC 563).” Marshall, op. cit, p.15, footnote #23.
I cite all this simply to illustrate how difficult the issue of biblical literalism/inerrancy/infallibility is in Lutheran circles.
19. Althaus, p.51. Contextually, of course, Luther was not talking so much about biblical literalism as he was contrasting God’s revelation to us through Scripture with human reason and such. What he is saying is that, compared to God’s Word, he will regard his own wisdom and reason as vain/worthless/for-naught.
20. Althaus, p. 82. See also p. 50. David Lotz in and essay titled “Sola Scriptura: Luther on Biblical Authority” (“Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology,” Vol. XXXV #3, July 1981, p.259-60), writes that scholarship “has been plagued by anachronistic attempts to link Luther’s position with latter-day biblicistic fundamentalism or with modern biblical criticism. Perhaps no other topic in Luther’s theology has been so liable to misinterpretation through incautious assertion and tendentious argument.”
21. Patrick T. Ferry (in “The Guiding Lights of the University of Wittenberg and the Emergence of Copernican Astronomy,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, 57, [October 1993], pp. 273-4) writes “Luther… did not regard Scripture as a scientific textbook, nor what his acceptance of the prevailing cosmology such that his theological perspective was dependent upon it. He viewed Scripture christologically. In other words, the person and work of Jesus Christ was seen as the sum and substance of Holy Writ. The Bible was not a scientific explanation of nature, and Luther was not confined to a rigid Biblicism that prevented him from seeing the value of natural science. Instead, he was aware that science and faith were distinct disciplines each being directed by its own discourse and each autonomous within its own sphere. He was, therefore, willing to accept the astronomers’ conclusion that the moon was the smallest and lowest of the stars even though Scripture referred to it as one of the ‘two great lights’ [Genesis 1:16] with control over the night and the heavenly bodies. The Old Testament scholar conjectured that Scripture was simply describing the moon as it appeared from the perspective of earth.” [TR 5:5259]. Quoted by Ron Marshall, op. cit, p.14, footnote #22.
22. Althaus: “Luther always begins with the hermeneutical principle that Scripture cannot be in conflict with Christ its head, that is, the gospel,” p. 80.
In LW26, p. 295, Luther writes: “Therefore one should simply reply to them (the sophists, enthusiasts, & the devil) as follows: “Here is Christ, and over there are the statements of Scripture about works. But Christ is Lord over Scripture and over all works. He is the Lord of heaven, earth, the Sabbath, the temple, righteousness, life, sin, death, and absolutely everything. Paul, His apostle, proclaims that He became sin and a curse for me. Therefore I hear that I could not be liberated from my sin, death, and curse through any other means than through His death and His blood. Therefore I conclude with all certainty and assurance that not my works but Christ had to conquer my sin, death, and curse.… Therefore if He Himself is the price of my redemption, if He Himself became sin and a curse in order to justify and bless me, I am not put off at all by passages of Scripture, even if you were to produce six hundred in support of the righteousness of works and against the righteousness of faith, and if you were to scream that Scripture contradicts itself. I have the Author and the Lord of Scripture, and I want to stand on His side rather than believe you. Nevertheless, it is impossible for Scripture to contradict itself except at the hands of senseless and stubborn hypocrites; at the hands of those who are godly and understanding it gives testimony to its Lord. Therefore see to it how you can reconcile Scripture, which, as you say, contradicts itself. I for my part shall stay with the Author of Scripture.”
23. LW26, p.393.
24. Philip of Hesse arranged the meeting in Marburg (1529) a meeting that has come to be known as the Marburg Colloquy.
25. See http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/marburg_colloquy.htm. Also, http://www.tecmalta.org/tft345.htm, under the very weak section, “contact with other Reformers”.
Roland Bainton’s summary of the Marburg Colloquy, which seems much more plausible than the other summaries already referenced, paints Luther in a much better light. Bainton, Roland, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon – Cokesbury, 1950), p.318-322.
Let it also be pointed out that Zwingli has too often been painted as a “sweetheart” in all this and Luther the stubborn one. In his introduction to Luther’s “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper”, Robert H Fisher points out that, “Zwingli no doubt sincerely meant his treatises to be “friendly,” as he called for a sense of responsibility before God, an end to the scandal of disunion, and the formation of a common front against Romanism. He wrote, however, in a condescending, school-masterish tone, and inserted a number of barbed comments. Much sharper yet was the letter which Zwingli sent to Luther with the two treatises on April 1. This begins by rebuking Luther for his self-contradiction and arrogance, but then appeals for unity against the papists…” And again, “In a letter of May, 1527, to Luther’s friend, Andreas Osiander, Zwingli declared that “Luther’s whole book consists of lies, slanders, deceit, and distortions,” and boasted that he would so answer that not a single soldier out of Luther’s great hosts of words would emerge unscathed; within three years Italy, France, Spain, and Germany would come around to the Swiss view” (LW37, p.153-156). In short, Zwingli was not the abused one nor was Luther the bully, as it is so often portrayed.
26. There is not time or space here to get into a discussion of Luther’s own “battle” to find clarity with regard to the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Suffice it to say that his breakthrough came with regard to his study of 1Cor.10 & 11, especially 10:16 where Paul writes: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” See Althaus, op. cit., p.383-387 for further discussion.
27. ‘Whoever has a bad conscience from his sin should go to the sacrament and obtain comfort, not because of the bread and wine, not because of the body and blood of Christ, but because of the word which in the sacraments offers, presents, and gives the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you.” LW40, p. 214f.
28. Bainton, p. 266.
29. Althaus, p. 395. Althaus summarizes, “On this point, Luther’s position is far superior to that of his opponents. He breaks through their idealistic equation of the world of the Holy Spirit with the sphere of inwardness in which there is only “spirit”. He preserves the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the totality and significance of reality, of sharing with God, association with God for all of life. All of these are not only spiritual but also bodily in nature” (Althaus, p. 396).
30. Book of Concord, Solid Declaration, art. VIII, par.2. See also Bainton, p.319.
31. LW4, p. 97.
32. Althaus writes, “Luther felt his opponents were rationalists who wanted to learn to understand God’s clear word with their human thoughts in terms of their concepts of what is possible and impossible, useful and not useful.” Then Althaus adds the following which is very helpful. “The question is not whether Luther’s evaluation of his opponents in the controversy on the Lord’s Supper was accurate. At present we are not concerned with passing judgment on the controversial situation between opponents, but with understanding Luther’s position."
“God’s clear word must be obeyed; and this obedience is demanded completely independently of whether we can understand how Christ’s body and blood are present in the bread and the wine.” Ibid, p.387.
33. Luther writes, “I am captive and cannot free myself. The text is too powerfully present, and will not allow itself to be torn from its meaning by mere verbiage” (LW40, p. 68).
34. “They [sincere hearts] want the Word of God and say ‘Why should I care for Karlstadt’s dreams, sneers, and slanders? I see the clear, distinct, and powerful words of God which compel me to confess that the body and blood of Christ are in the sacrament... How Christ is brought into the bread or strikes up the tune we demand, I do not know. But I do know full well that the Word of God cannot lie, and it says that the body and blood of Christ are in the Sacrament.” LW40, p. 176.
35. Paul Althaus (op. cit., p.75) writes, “No one, no matter who he may be, is allowed to be master and judge of the Scripture, rather all must be its witnesses, disciples, and confessors. This means no one is in a position to validate Scripture. Scripture validates itself.” Then, in a footnote, he quotes Luther, “This queen (Scripture) must rule, and everyone must obey and be subject to her. The Pope. Luther, Augustine, Paul, or even an angel from heaven – these should not be masters, judges, or arbiters but only witnesses, disciples, and confessors of Scripture.” (LW26, p.58).
36. Luther writes: “Gods word and works do not proceed according to our view of things, but in a way incomprehensible to all reason and even to the angels.” (LW37, p.207f).
37. Martin Luther before the Imperial Diet (assembly/court) 18 April 1521. LW32, p. 113.
38. I beg the reader’s pardon; I lost the specific reference for this quote from Forde.
39. This was one of the reasons Luther translated the Bible, wrote the Catechisms, revised the liturgy, wrote hymns and so on. Bainton, op. cit., p.335f. In his letter to the councilmen of Germany, Luther argues that Christian schools should be started for three basic reasons. 1. Some parents lack the goodness and decency even to be unmotivated to care for and educate their children. They bring them into the world and then do nothing more. 2. Some parents, even if they are motivated, don’t know how to educate their children. All they themselves have learned is how to care for their own bellies. 3. Some, even if they have the desire and ability lack the time and opportunity because they are so occupied with other duties and responsibilities. “How then,” Luther asks, “can reason, and especially Christian charity, allow that they grow up uneducated, to poison and pollute other children…?” LW45, p.355.
40. Luther writes: “(I)n this matter of judging teachings and appointing or dismissing teachers or pastors, one should not care at all about human statutes, law, old precedent, usage, custom, etc., even if they were instituted by pope or emperor, prince or bishop, if one half or the whole world accepted them, or if they lasted one year or a thousand years. For the soul of man is something eternal, and more important than every temporal thing. That is why it must be ruled and seized only by the eternal word; for it is very disgraceful to rule consciences before God with human law and old custom. That is why this matter must be dealt with according to Scripture and God’s word; for God’s word and human teaching inevitably oppose each other when the latter tries to rule the soul. This we shall prove clearly with regard to our present discussion, in this manner:
“Human words and teaching instituted and decreed that only bishops, scholars, and councils should be allowed to judge doctrine. Whatever they decided should be regarded as correct and as articles of faith by the whole world, as is sufficiently proven by their daily boasting about the pope’s spiritual law. One hears almost nothing from them but such boasting that they have the power and right to judge what is Christian or what is heretical. The ordinary Christian is supposed to await their judgment and obey it. Do you see how shamelessly and foolishly this boasting, with which they intimidated the whole world and which is their highest stronghold and defense, rages against God’s law and word?
“Christ institutes the very opposite. He takes both the right and the power to judge teaching from the bishops, scholars, and councils and gives them to everyone and to all Christians equally when he says, John 10[:4], “My sheep know my voice.” Again, “My sheep do not follow strangers, but flee from them, for they do not know the voice of strangers” [John 10:5]. Again, “No matter how many of them have come, they are thieves and murderers. But the sheep did not listen to them” [John 10:8]. Here you see clearly who has the right to judge doctrine: bishops, popes, scholars, and everyone else have the power to teach, but it is the sheep who are to judge whether they teach the voice [i.e., the words] of Christ or the voice of strangers. .”LW39, p.305f. See also Althaus, p.38, footnote #13.
41. Luther writes: “For the soul of man is something eternal, and more important than every temporal thing. That is why it must be ruled and seized by the eternal word; for it is disgraceful to rule consciences before God with human law and old custom. That is why this matter must be dealt with according to Scripture and God’s word…” Ibid, p. 306.
42. Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971). See section on the Transfiguration. See also Robert Stein’s article, “Is the Transfiguration a Misplaced Resurrection Account?” in Journal for Biblical Literature, vol.95, #1, pp.79-96.
43. See my article, “Dale Martin’s ‘Arsenokoites and Malakos’ Tried and Found Wanting” in “Currents in Theology and Mission” vol.33; #5, October 2006, p. 397-405.
45. An exception, of course, was the Book of Revelation which Luther found to be obscure at best. He mistrusted the Book of Revelation. “A revelation,” he said, “should be revealing.” Bainton, op. cit., p.332
46. Althaus, p.77f.
47. Althaus, p.388. LW37, p. 127f.
48. Althaus, p.388f.
49. Pr. Marshall in his pamphlet (see footnote #2) identifies 12 principles with which “to read the Bible properly” (p.ii). My list of seven is obviously shorter. Consider it an abbreviated version.
50. The following is the full text of the ELCA’s Constitution’s statement of faith:
CONFESSION OF FAITH
2.01. This church confesses the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
2.02. This church confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.
2.03. This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.
2.04. This church accepts the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds as true declarations of the faith of this church.
2.05. This church accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.
2.06. This church accepts the other confessional writings in the Book of Concord, namely, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord, as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church.
2.07. This church confesses the Gospel, recorded in the Holy Scripture and confessed in the ecumenical creeds and Lutheran confessional writings, as the power of God to create and sustain the Church for God’s mission in the world.
p. 20 / ELCA CONSTITUTION—CHAPTER 3 (11-05)
51. The reader may be interested in a “Critique and Commentary” on JTF-2 in which the study is critiqued on a point by point basis. The style is that of brief editorial comments which, unfortunately, did not allow lengthy or thorough explanation. If you are so interested, that study is available at: http://www.wordalone.org/docs/wa-jepsen-commentary.shtml.
52. Isn’t it strange that there is no mention of Jesus’ affirmation of the divine will and order in Matt. 19:3-6 where He says, “Have you not read that He who made them from the beginning made them male and female…”? In light of the present discussion, this is a strange omission, indeed.
53. Although this is an argument often heard, and is one that goes largely unchallenged by the major media, studies in genetics do not support that conclusion.
Merton Strommen writes, “Many believe that science has proven that homosexuality is genetically determined, that homosexuals are born that way. Behavioral geneticists find no evidence for this widely held belief that homosexuality is genetically determined. No research is able to do more than identify what seems to be a genetic predisposition towards homosexuality… Ruth Hubbard, professor emeritus at Harvard University and board member of The Council for Responsible Genetics, had this to say: ‘Searching for the gay gene is not even a worthwhile pursuit. I don’t think there is and single gene that governs complex human behavior. It is foolish to say genes are not involved, but I don’t think they are decisive.” Strommen, The Church & Homosexuality, (Minneapolis, MN, Kirk House Publishers, 2001), p.26.
In response to a study by Dean Hamer and others that appeared to argue that homosexuality was genetically pre-determined, researchers from Yale, Columbia and Louisiana State Universities wrote that:
“Much of the discussion of the finding (by Hamer et. al.) has focused on its social and political ramifications. In contrast our goal is to discuss the scientific evidence and to highlight inconsistencies that suggest that this finding should be interpreted cautiously…“[The Study’s] results are not consistent with any genetic model. …Neither of these differences [between homosexuality in maternal versus paternal uncles or cousins] is statistically significant. …Small sample sizes make these data compatible with a range of genetic and environmental hypotheses…” Satinover, Jeffrey, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books, 1996), p. 112.
54. Creative potentials are something to be stewarded in accord with God’s purpose – an artist may use his/her creative ability in a way that celebrates nihilism or in one that builds nobility and purpose.
55. Again, the reader may consult “Critique and Commentary” as referenced in footnote #47.
57. LW 9:21
58. I live in the Tacoma area of Puget Sound not far from McCord Air Force Base. Driving by McCord, one can see pilots practicing the “touch-and-go” maneuver. They come in for a landing and then, when the air craft is on the ground but still moving a pretty good speed, they accelerate and take off again. They do a fly-around the area and then do the same thing all over again – perhaps many times. I am told they do this because it conserves fuel not having to start from a complete stop or bring the craft to a complete stop. The analogy I am trying to draw here is that, just as the “touch-and-go” crew and aircraft are not on the ground very long, neither does the “touch-and-go” interpreter stay with the text very long, only long enough to take from it what s/he wanted, not necessarily what the text says.
59. Eisegesis refers to reading meaning into a text that may not actually be intended, as opposed to exegesis which refers to the effort to glean from a text what it actually says. I recently read on-line the story of a team of Chinese missionaries who ran into a problem crossing a river that led to where they were ministering. They couldn't get a across the river so one of them quoted the passage where Jesus invited Peter to walk with Him on the water, “Come.” (Matt.14:25-31). The missionary read into the text (eisegesis) and claimed the verse for himself. Well, the end result was that he drowned. Perhaps if this missionary knew the difference between exegeting and eisegeting, then he may have not died. http://www.geocities.com/carpe_diem007/Exegesis.
60. LW35, p.360.
61. Book of Concord, Tappert, op. cit, p.358.
62. For a fuller discussion of this text see my article as referenced in footnote #40.
63. Althaus, op. cit., p.77.