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A Lutheran Stance Toward Contemporary Bible Studies

A Report of the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations
of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod

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When The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod instructed the Commission on Theology and Church Relations to "conduct a comprehensive study of Biblical hermeneutics" (1965 Proceedings, Res. 2-07, page 95), it did not thereby declare a moratorium on Biblical study and scholarship throughout the Synod. On the contrary, the church's scholars, wherever their calling finds them, as well as all other members of the church, are expected to continue their daily searching of the Scriptures as vigorously as ever. The special study assigned to the Commission on Theology and Church Relations is simply a part of and, hopefully, a useful contribution to the effort in which we are all engaged together.

As this common effort goes on, however, the question has been raised in various quarters: How do we approach and carry on our personal study of Scripture in a time like this when the whole field of Biblical scholarship seems, at least to many, a confusing riddle marked by extravagant claims and counterclaims, charges and counter charges, novel views, and ancient axioms?

The only justifiable purpose for applying the best techniques of scholarship to the study of Holy Scripture is to enable students of the Bible better to understand the Word of God. Clarity, not confusion, is the proper goal of scholarship. When this goal is not achieved, something has gone wrong-either with scholarship or with those whom scholarship is to serve.

The document which follows is a serious attempt to make plain the essential elements that characterize sound Biblical studies in our time and a Lutheran stance toward such studies. It does not intend to offer definitive answers to specific scholarly questions in the area of Biblical study. What it does aim to furnish is a clear perspective on the nature of the question in the light of our history and theology, and also in thetical form a brief description of the Christian interpreter's attitude toward contemporary Biblical studies in terms both of presupposition and of method.


The Question in Historical
and Theological Perspective

Throughout her history the Christian church has had to face and deal with questions relating to her faith and her life, her existence and her purpose, her message and her authority. Because of the frailty and imperfection of her members and because of the powerful and relentless assaults of Satan, the church has been compelled to engage in unremitting struggle to remain faithful to her Lord and to her divinely given task. While the church has always had the assurance of the authority and beneficent presence of the Lord Jesus Christ through the promised activity of the Holy Spirit, the church herself, consisting as she does of sinful human beings, has never in her history been able to provide faultless and completely adequate solutions to her besetting problems. That is to say, while the church has always had recourse to the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures as the Word of God and the full assurance of her divinely wrought faith, nevertheless she has never been able to attain a perfect and complete comprehension of the divine revelation, nor a perfect and complete formulation of her response to the Word of God (1 Cor. 13 :12; Rom. 11:33 f.), nor an abidingly adequate and valid defense against all attacks. Here, as in all other aspects of her existence and mission through the ages, the church has had to confess her weaknesses and failures and continue to live and labor in total reliance on the forgiving, strengthening, and protecting grace of God.

While the difficulties plaguing the church have not always been the same in detail, and while different problems have been more acute in one age than another or in one branch of the church than another, it is always the church as such that is involved. Since the church is one, what troubles one part of the church must ultimately affect all other parts. This is true also and especially today as the church is inevitably affected by the global breakdown of barriers in time and space, in language and communication. While it may have been possible in the past for some segments of Christendom to live and perform their churchly functions with little or no contact with other Christian groups, such isolation is extremely difficult today.

Two of the major questions under discussion in church circles today are

This is certainly not a new issue. Christian writers in ages past have had much to say about this matter. Certain aspects of the doctrine concerning the Scriptures have indeed become especially acute in more recent times. Within all major church bodies much time and study have been devoted to a thorough investigation of such topics as the origin, form, and function of the Biblical writings, revelation, inspiration, inerrancy, nature and scope of Biblical authority, and the principles of interpretation and application.

A number of factors have contributed to the raising of these issues and to the necessity of dealing with them. It must be conceded that both in the past and in the present various forms of rationalism and secularized approaches to Scripture have been destructive of the authority of the Word of God. It must also be acknowledged, however, that the labors of unnumbered scholars, many of them humble and consecrated Christians, have very significantly enlarged the store of Biblical knowledge and advanced the horizons of genuine Biblical scholarship. For all new evidence and insights regarding the meaning of the Biblical text the church must be grateful and must make intelligent and constructive use of every aid God has provided for a fuller understanding of His Word.

Our sainted and revered fathers sought to follow this course. Any casual perusal of our church's periodicals and books will discover considerable amounts of space devoted to a critical evaluation of the theological scene in the church at large. From the vantage point of a wholehearted commitment to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions and their dedication to the promulgation and preservation of the Gospel in its purity, the fathers unhesitatingly employed whatever products of Biblical scholarship they considered valid and in conformity with their loyalties. It is true that our synodical fathers were generally more negative and condemnatory in their evaluation of both the methodology and the conclusions in the Biblical studies as they came to know them; but this was the case largely because much, if not most, of the Biblical scholarship of their time appeared to proceed from presuppositions at variance with sound Biblical and confessional orientation and was, therefore, quite frequently biased and destructive. Wherever the same circumstances prevail today, our church must continue in the same judgment.

Further, the church has always been inescapably involved in the consideration of the Word of God. Our church too must critically examine the methods and products of modern Biblical scholarship. It is a matter of record that in recent decades there has been a shift away from the crass theological liberalism that was rampant earlier in this century in the direction of a more conservative, more Biblical theology. With this shift has come, on the part of many Biblical scholars, a more responsible use of the historical-critical method of Bible study. It is therefore not a foregone conclusion that all the presuppositions and conclusions of current scholarship are necessarily the same as those against which our fathers rightly protested. Hence it must not be assumed in advance that our church's present judgment needs to coincide at all points with that of the fathers, although it should indeed proceed from the same theological perspective.. Rather, the church is called upon to distinguish between sound and unsound presuppositions, between proper and improper methods of scholarly investigation, and between valid and invalid conclusions. Our church must approach the methods and results of modern Biblical scholarship objectively, appraise them critically, and use them discriminately and constructively. (1 Thess. 5:21)

All depends on the perspective from which the church approaches the study of the Scriptures. Our church is unalterably committed to the divine Word that proclaims God's mighty acts, His steadfast love for a world that merits His wrath, above all His revelation in Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, as summarized and confessed by Christians in the Trinitarian Creeds of the ancient church and as expounded in the Symbols of the Lutheran Church. In conformity with the Lutheran Symbols our church confesses and acknowledges the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures to be the Word of God given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, submits unreservedly to them as the sole source, norm, and authority for the church's teaching, and confidently uses them as the powerful vehicles of the Holy Spirit's continuing operation. Securely anchored to this position, our church may then proceed to a calm analysis and constructive use of all the facilities of competent scholarship. In the process our church will exercise a true critical function with respect to both traditional and new principles and practices, adopting, discarding, or modifying either the old or the new, as the Biblical evidence itself may require. In the process, too, our church and individuals in the church will manifest their human frailties and limitations and will, as in the past, make mistakes. Some may fail to say all that the Scriptures themselves say and thus will fall short of the Biblical witness. Others may say more than the Scriptures permit them to say. In either case Christian scholars must live, as in all other areas of their life in Christ, by the daily forgiveness of sins also with regard to their scholarly procedures and products. They will live and work within the circle of the precious fellowship of faith and love together with their brothers in Christ, ever striving to manifest the mind of Christ, in honor preferring one another, bearing one another's burdens, admonishing one another, ever ready to accept the loving expression of fraternal concern and instruction from their brothers and equally ready to lend the hand and the voice of fraternal love and strength to their brothers. The goal of all Christian life and activity, including Christian study and scholarship, can only be to edify the church, to promote growth in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, to hallow God's name, to let His kingdom come, and to let His will be done, that God in all things may be glorified through our Lord Jesus Christ.

However, before the return of our exalted Lord to judge the quick and the dead, this goal will never be perfectly achieved. Meanwhile Christians must live in the tension of having the perfect righteousness of faith and a very imperfect righteousness of life at the same time. As a result of this tension there will be controversies in the church, and the church's members will fall short of a completely pure and full witness to the Word of God.

Our Lutheran Confessions, to which we are all committed, suggest a constructive way to deal with differences as they arise among brothers in the faith.

On the one hand, the confessors considered it their duty "on the basis of God's Word, carefully and accurately to explain and decide the differences that had arisen with reference to all articles in controversy, to expose and to reject false doctrine, and clearly to confess the divine truth" (Preface to The Book of Concord, Tappert, p. 6). To achieve this result, "they took to hand the controverted articles, examined, evaluated, and explained them in the fear of God, and produced a document in which they set forth how the differences that had occurred were to be decided in a Christian way" (ibid.). "Such an explanation must be thoroughly grounded in God's Word so that pure doctrine can be recognized and distinguished from adulterated doctrine..." (ibid., p. 13). It is clear that the writers of the Lutheran Confessions were totally committed to the Scriptures. They themselves were not indifferent to any departure from God's Word, nor did they approve of such indifference in others.

On the other hand, they carefully distinguished "between needless and unprofitable contentions (which, since they destroy rather than edify, should never be allowed to disturb the church) and necessary controversy (dissension concerning articles of the Creed or the chief parts of our Christian doctrine, when the contrary error must be refuted in order to preserve the truth)" (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Rule and Norm, 15; Tappert, p. 506 f.). A glance at the articles of the Formula of Concord (Original Sin, Free Will, The Person and Work of Christ, Law and Gospel, Faith and Works, The Lord's Supper, God's Eternal Election, etc.) and the way in which these matters were treated shows what the framers of the Formula had in mind when they spoke of "necessary controversy." All of these issues had a bearing on the Gospel itself.

Similarly Melanchthon, in discussing the prerequisites of unity and concord in the church, distinguishes between that which necessarily disrupts this unity and that which does not. The foundation is described as the true knowledge of Christ and faith. On this foundation many weak people and even the holy Fathers sometimes built perishing structures of stubble, that is, "unprofitable opinions." But these unprofitable and even erroneous opinions did not overthrow the foundation. The church was not indifferent to these errors but tried to correct them; however, it did not regard them as divisive of church fellowship. (Cf. Apology VII and VIII, 20, 21; Tappert, pp. 171 f.)

The church today will do well to follow the pattern set by the Lutheran Confessions in the face of contemporary problems and differences of opinion. The church will never be indifferent to or condone departures from the truth of God's Word. From its vantage point of total commitment to the Gospel the church will know how to distinguish between the chief parts of the Christian doctrine and differing opinions, even when these are unprofitable, and in a patient, fraternal fashion seek to correct them in the light of the Gospel.


Summary Statements

From this same vantage point of the Gospel, Lutheran theologians view every question of Biblical interpretation. Also concerning any given methodology of interpretation they ask above all: How does it relate to the understanding and proclamation of the Gospel?

Mindful, then, of the basic theological principles and the historical background sketched in Part I, we offer to the church the following guidelines for developing a soundly Scriptural and Lutheran stance toward contemporary Biblical studies.

This text was converted to ASCII text for Project Wittenberg by Mark A. French and is in the public domain. You may freely distribute, copy or print this text. Please direct any comments or suggestions to:

Rev. Robert E. Smith
Walther Library
Concordia Theological Seminary.

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