Nota bene: This essay was never published on the old Strange Herring site. It was finished sometime in mid-2015 and left as a draft. The reasons for that will become apparent shortly. I am publishing it on July 28, 2016, because, well, in revisiting my digital oevre, I thought it a shame to have wasted so much time for nothing. And don’t forget to catch the updates at the very bottom. (You’ll have to dig to China.)
So the St. Louis-Post Dispatch has written up a tendentious piece on the Matthew Becker controversy in the LCMS. There’s no guessing which side the paper is on. There’s no guessing who the bad guys are and who the good guy is.
With that said, I have a lot to say on this, and not necessarily what you’d think. The only reason I feel that I have a right to stick my nose in is that the LCMS was the church body I was baptized and confirmed into, the church body whose parochial schools I attended for 12 years, the church body I left at roughly the age of 16 and never returned to, even to this day (despite attending many, many Divine Services in LCMS churches over the past nine years).
I started writing this post back in March 2015, even though I didn’t know it. That’s about the time Randy Boyagoda’s biography of Richard John Neuhaus hit bookstores. Writing about that lead me to RJN’s time in the LCMS and his connection to such people as Arthur Piepkorn and Herman Otten, which lead me to recent books about the Seminex walkout, which lead me to the topic of inerrancy and what it means in the confessional Lutheran world today.
I wrote and rewrote parts of it over a six-week period. It had reached, oh, about 10,000 words at that point.
And so I decided not to publish it.
Not so much because of the length (I think more of your attention span that that). But because . . . what is the point? I was just going to stir a pot and generate bad blood and so . . . what is the point?
And then the Becker business broke, and I followed that, and I was tempted to write about it, then decided against it, because . . . what is the point?
Now Becker has left the LCMS for the ELCA and the story has hit a small portion of the MSM.
I think I finally found the point.
So rather than start all over, I’m simply going to begin where I began last March, and take it from there. It’s eight hundred million trillion words long, and I nearly killed myself twice just to make it stop, and you may contemplate same. It starts off in one direction, then veers off into another until it crash-lands in a cornfield about five miles outside St. Louis. It contains lots of links to Wikipedia (owing to mere laziness in digging up more authoritative sources), city-block-length quotes, and footnotes! By the time you’re finished, assuming you’re generous enough to make the effort, children will have been born and imprisoned, wars will have been fought and lost, a bacterium will have been found on one of Jupiter’s moons proving to the New York Times that there is no God and life is meaningless, and I will have lost a good 50 blog followers. So pack a lunch and bring some friends. Here we go—one, two, three . . .
* * *
The inimitable Mollie Hemingway twerped on the Twizzler a few weeks back about some jackanapes who reviewed the new biography of Richard John Neuhaus. The book’s reviewer is some guy from the Global Blob, which is published in Canada, so I make allowances. The review begins with a calamitously short introduction to the life of Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who was murdered by a “right-wing death squad,” apparently because Romero was one of those “good Catholics” you read about in Canadian newspapers.
But why start a review about a Canadian-American pastor-priest, writer, and social commentator with an advertisement for Romero? Because RJN, apparently, was one of those “bad Catholics” you read about in Canadian newspapers. But he could have been a contender:
Romero, who championed the poor and spoke out against torture, is one model of a politically committed Christian. Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, whose dramatic life is amply chronicled in a spirited and rewarding new biography by Canadian novelist Randy Boyagoda, cries out for comparisons with his Salvadoran counterpart. When he was young, as a vocal advocate for civil rights and anti-war politics, Neuhaus was on the path to becoming an American Romero. But Neuhaus’s pilgrim’s progress was rich in political and religious conversions and his ultimate fate was to be the anti-Romero.
The “anti-Romero,” presumably because Neuhaus hated the poor and spoke out for torture.
This is why a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
I have not a had a chance to read every last page of Randy Boyagoda’s biography of RJN. A review copy arrived at my office and I read chunks, especially those about RJN’s early years in the LCMS, his move to Rome, and then his last years as editor of FIRST THINGS, about which I had more first- and second-hand knowledge. From what I could glean from the portions I read, Boyagoda’s is a fair-minded and even sympathetic overview of a very rich and controversial life. But it is by no means a puff piece. One thing the Blob’s reviewer gets right is that “Boyagoda shares many, although not all, of Neuhaus’s conservative Catholic ideas, but is honest enough to give space to critics.”
Let me say, it is very strange to read a book about someone you knew, and who was both an employer and a friend, and about events you eyeballed or knew of from first-hand accounts of the active players. Boyagoda’s recounting of the mood in the office, for example, when former FIRST THINGS editor Damon Linker’s The Theocons came out is pretty accurate. (For the record, I’ve never met Linker, and wouldn’t know him from a hole in someone’s back.)
Alan Jacobs has responded to both Linker and Blog boy, and as one would expect from Jacobs, he gets it just right. Critics of Neuhaus loved the lefty version of RJN but despised the “neocon theocon” edition. But none of his critics bothered to drill down into RJN’s own well-reasoned explanations for why he turned Right. But Jacobs does:
Neuhaus believed that God “brings into being” each of those whom Jesus calls “the least of these”; that God calls them to Himself, redeems them—that God loves the unloved and unwanted; that every life, including life in the womb, is immeasurably precious to Him. In the 1960s he was a man of the left because he knew that the left was populated by many religious believers (Jewish as well as Christian) and because he thought that even the irreligious had in their secular way a care for “the least of these” that resembled his own.
Boyagoda shows very clearly that as the Sixties moved into the Seventies, Neuhaus found his allies moving farther and farther away from him. The religious left became less and less willing to challenge even the grossest injustices and abuses if they emerged from their own end of the political spectrum. In 1975, “when he and a few others tried—and failed—to win broad support among his leftist colleagues for a public condemnation of the new Communist government in Vietnam because of its broad human rights abuses and specific targeting of religious minorities, he knew it was really over: for his onetime allies, leftist political solidarity trumped concerns over the higher dictates of religious freedom and human dignity.”
Moreover, the left with increasing insistence severed the cause of the poor from the cause of the unborn—something Neuhaus found tragic. Boyagoda again: “By the early 1970s Neuhaus began to understand his commitment to the rights of the poor and the racially oppressed as of a piece with his commitment to the rights of the unborn, which would occupy an ever greater primacy in the coming years. From the beginning, however, this integration of rights for the poor and rights for the unborn placed him at a critical distance from a Left in which private rights—made possible by and indeed protecting implicit race and class privileges—trumped responsibilities for others.”
Anyone who knew RJN for any length of time recognizes this as an accurate portrayal. Critics to his left can see only a rationalization after the fact because, well, because they fear that if this is true, what does that say about them?
The parts of Boyagoda’s bio that really caught my eye were RJN’s years in the LCMS, and at Concordia Seminary St. Louis. Neuhaus had long moved on by the time the whole Seminex debacle went down, Seminex being shorthand for that period when a sizable swath of the St. Louis student body and teaching staff walked out after a struggle over the sem’s direction. Very loosely described, it was an irreparable rift between “conservatives” and “liberals.”(1) But there is no doubting which side RJN would have been on (the walkers), even though most of them wound up in what became the ELCA, so never say God doesn’t have a sense of humor. Many ELCAers finally made their way to Rome, including two pastors from my childhood, Leonard Klein and Kazimierz Kowalski. (I’ve had the opportunity to talk with both of them since their move Rome-ward, and the deterioration of the ELCA into a mire of theological mush and indifferentism were obviously prime motivators.)
A crucial issue debated at St. Louis was the use of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation (and something that would come to be called gospel reductionism). I don’t have room here to explore in depth what that entails. (And when people say they “don’t have room,” they usually mean they have plenty of room, and that’s the problem, because such an exploration would take up skatey-eight pages of text or 30 gigashmertz of data.) Let’s just say, according to the LCMS, and many other conservative Protestant church bodies, historical-critical bad, historical-grammatical good. (Although trying to discern the author’s original intention in penning a piece of Scripture, as the latter discipline intends, also entails entering that author’s worldview, including the prevailing cosmology, which has its ironies, if you know anything about how most confessionals interpret Genesis. It also demands that you have some idea of who the original author was, which is a controversial notion in and of itself in regard to certain books—from Genesis to the Pauline pastorals, Hebrews, 2 Peter, and Revelation.)
Now, RJN’s mentor at Concordia St. Louis was a pastor-teacher by the name of Arthur Carl Piepkorn. Here’s an unhelpful conspectus of Piepkorn’s career from the LCMS’s Christian Cyclops. This is more helpful.
Piepkorn believed that the Lutheran “protest” was always intended as a renewal movement within the church catholic, and that once the original concerns of the Reformers had been addressed, there would be no justification to remain a separate body of “Lutherans.”(2) This catholic evangelicalism made some people nervous; these were Lutherans, after all, and ecumenism had all the stink of unionism about it, that clumsy blend of theological convictions that convicted no one of anything other than the prudential strategy of make-nice.
In fact, Piepkorn was something of a bête noire to many of the conservatives or traditionalists at St. Louis. From what I can gather reading the various accounts, there was a movement afoot by conservatives to oust him from the seminary—but he died before they could pull it off.
Now Piepkorn understood, as I’m sure many of his seminary colleagues did, what many of us understand today, even those of us raised in the LCMS and who have trafficked in conservative Protestant circles for some time, that a constant recourse to “inerrancy,” as if it were some kind of safeword, creates as many problems for students of the Bible as it is supposed to solve. Please take the time to read this long excerpt from Piepkorn’s essay on inerrancy, published in 1965 in the Concordia Theological Monthly (boldfaced emphasis mine, and stop saying it isn’t):
It is unquestionably true that we can infer some of the implications of the truth of the Sacred Scriptures from the fact that the Holy Spirit of truth is the principal Author of the prophetic and apostolic writings. We may properly ask here, however, if such an inference is rational or strictly theological.
It is equally true that we can infer other implications of truth of the Sacred Scriptures from the Old and New Testaments.
But side by side with these reflections we must take into account the actual Sacred Scriptures in the concrete forms in which we have them by God’s providence through the church’s faithful transmission.
To begin with, we can well remind ourselves that God does not use the original Biblical documents to communicate His truthful Word to men, nor does He even make exclusive use of the Sacred Scriptures in their original languages for this purpose. Our own experience certifies that He communicates His truth to men in the King James Version, the Rheims-Douai version, the Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible, the Confraternity translation, and the paraphrases of J. B. Phillips and the late Ronald Knox, as He has done through the Luther-Bibel, the Vulgate, the Itala, the Peshitta, and the Septuagint. This is not without importance for our inquiry.
But setting aside this consideration, the form of the Scriptures, as we have them in the original Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek, possesses elements of decisive significance for the nature of the truth of Sacred Scriptures.
We shall refrain from entering upon the whole question of the inspiration of the Sacred Scriptures. We need only observe that they have come to us in a form which clearly recognizes both their divine and their human authorship. . . . The Torah is not a human authority to St. Paul (1 Cor. 9:8). Yahweh speaks to Ahaz (Is. 7:10 ). The word comes from Yahweh to Jeremiah (Jer. 7:1). The Spirit of Yahweh speaks by David (2 Sam. 23:2; compare Matt. 22:43; Mark 12:36; Acts 4:25; Heb. 4:7). In almost all of its 375 Old Testament occurrences ne’um is followed by Yahweh—“Yahweh’s oracle.” The New Testament quotes from the Old Testament as the address and the speaking of God. (Matt. 1: 22; 22:31; Acts 13:47; Rom. 9:25; 2 Cor. 1:46).
On the other hand, Moses and the people of Israel sing their Cantemus Domino (Ex. 15 :1–18; see also verse 21) , Hannah sings her Exultavit (1 Sam. 2: 1), David sings his Dominus petra mea (2 Sam. 22: 1), the Mother of God her Magnificat (Luke 1:46). When the New Testament quotes the Old it often refers merely to the human author(s) by title or name Matt. 2:1, 17, 23; 3:3; 4:14; 12:17; 15:7; 21:4; Acts 2:16, 31, 34; 7:48; Rom. 9:29; 10:19, 20).
The author of the Third Gospel undertakes to write an orderly account of the events that underlie the Christian faith (Luke 1:3) . St. Paul affirms that he gives no command of the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:25)
It is data like these which determined the ancient formula that God, or, by more specific appropriation, the Holy Spirit . . . is the principal (or primary) Author of the Sacred Scriptures. This does not imply that He is the first among equals. It does imply that He is the originating principium. It also affirms the secondary and instrumental role of the human authors. In stressing their instrumental role, however, we must not forget that God availed Himself of human authors and that, as far as we can observe, they generally were in full possession of their human faculties when God used them.
We have a canon of the Sacred Scriptures that God has not defined by an explicit revelation, that the Catholic Church has not fixed by any formal dogmatic decree, and that at most points in Christian history represents merely a moderately common consensus. We have Sacred Scriptures which have taken over from the secular world of men not only vocables, morphologies, grammars, syntactical systems, idioms and conceptual complexes, but also the remnants of a varied melange of philosophies, natural histories, cosmologies, and eschatologies that had passed into the public domain. These also, and not merely the words that are catalogued in Gesenius, Bauer-Arndt Gingrich, and Kittel-Friedrich, are the vehicles of the divine revelation.
In determining what is vehicle and what is cargo we can often appeal to the general hermeneutical principle of the presumed internal self-consistency of the document being inquired into. In the special case of the Sacred Scriptures theology has formulated this principal as “Scripture interprets Scripture (Scriptura Scripturam interpretatur)” or some equivalent thesis. We still have always to decide, of course, which “Scriptura” is in the nominative and which is in the accusative, but the principle is a useful as well as a valid one.
Sometimes, however, this principle does not give us the decisive help that the situation calls for, and we are thrust back upon our human experience. By way of example, Eccl. 10:2 reads lev chakham limino welev kesil lishmo’lo. The King James Version translated this: “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand, but a fool’s heart at his left.” Superficially this is a scientific statement about human anatomy. It would be inappropriate, however, to deduce from it that we could have a college applicant step for a chest X-ray in front of a fluorescent screen calibrated in intelligence quotient points and let this substitute for a carefully administered intelligence test or a realistic appraisal of his high school grades. The Revised Standard Version paraphrases and interprets the bare vocables of the Hebrew: “A wise man’s heart inclines him toward the right, but a fool’s heart toward the left.” On the basis of this verse so interpreted we could not, however, correlate the frequency of right turns with automobile drivers’ intelligence. The point is that in this passage the necessity of providing a metaphorical rather than a literal interpretation derives not from anything in the Sacred Scriptures but from human experience.
Again, when Mal. 1:11 (in the spirit of Joshua 10:13; Ps. 19:4–6; Matt. 5:45) speaks of the sun’s rising and of its setting, it is our contemporary knowledge of the heavens and not something in the Sacred Scriptures that make us read this as a pre-Copernican phenomenal accommodation. We can say the same thing about references to the four corners of the earth in Is. 11:12 and Rev. 7: 1 and to the constellations in Job 38:31. When our contemporary knowledge of the natural order seems to conflict with a literal acceptance of other Biblical assertions, may we not consider the possibility that here, too, we are dealing with prescientific descriptions which are not integral to the divine revelation?
Turning to other details, we have such phenomena as a passage which seems co be taken from the Book of Zechariah ascribed in Matt. 27:9, 10 to Jeremiah; St. Jerome claims to have seen an Apocryphon of Jeremiah which contained the citation word for word. In quoting from the Old Testament the New Testament is likely to expand the Old Testament source, abbreviate it, alter it, paraphrase it, and even quote it according to the Septuagint (Acts 15:16–18 quoting Amos 9:11, 12 and Heb. 10:5–9 quoting Ps. 40:6–8 are instructive examples). This procedure has implications for the importance of the precise words and a number of other issues. At times we find in the New Testament a theologically conditioned use of the Old Testament that possibly can best be described as allusive. The New Testament can allegorize an Old Testament pericope and appear to assume that the allegorical meaning will be self-evident to the reader (Gal. 4:21 to 31). St. Paul can quote Eliphaz the Temanite (Job 5:13) as authoritative in 1 Cor. 3: 19. The supernatural rock that followed Israel according to 1 Cor. 10:4 does not occur in the Old Testament but in the Jewish tradition that the Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan represents. . . . In Gal. 3:17 he raises the problem of the length of time between the promise to Abraham and the giving of the Torah (430 years, with the LXX text of Ex. 12:40, or 645 years, on the basis of Gen. 12:4; 21:5; 25:26; 47:9 and the Biblical account (Ex. 7:11, 22; 8:7, 18, 19) but apparently from Jewish tradition. St. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 raises in verse 4 the issue of the chronological relation of the departure of Abraham from Haran to the death of Terah in the light of Gen. 11:26, 32 and 12:4 and the possible dependence of the Protomartyr on an oral tradition that was likewise familiar to Philo the Jew (for another example see v. 23). Verses 15 and 16 raise the question of the burial place of Jacob (Shechem or Hebron-Mamre) when compared with Gen. 50:13 (see also 23:16–18 and Jos. 24:32).
Admittedly an argument from literary parallels is not intrinsically decisive. Nevertheless, the striking similarities of Matt. 11:28–30 and Ecclus. 51:23, 26–27 raise questions. The situation is similar when we compare Luke 12:19, 20 with Ecclus. 11:19; Rom. 1:20–23, 26, 29–31 with Wisdom 12:24; 13:5, 8; 14:24–27; Rom. 9:20 to 23 with Wisdom 12:2,20; 15:7; . . . 2 Cor. 5: 1, 4 with Wisdom 9:15; Heb.11:35 with 2 Mace. 6 (especially v. 19) and 7, as Theodoret observed as early as the fifth century; Heb. 1:1–4 with Wisdom 7:22–26; James 1:13 with Ecclus. 15:11, 12; James 1:19 with Ecclus. 5:11; James 5:3 with Ecclus. 12:11; 29:9, 10; and Rev. 21: 18–21 with Tobit 13:16, 17.
Jude 6 seems to have affinities with Gen. 6: 1–4 . . . as amplified by 1Enoch 10:4–6. In verse 9 Saint Jude apparently derives his information about the account of St. Michael’s contest with Satan from a form of the pseudepigraphic Assumption of Moses known to the early church fathers. Verses 14, 15 explicitly ascribe a passage from 1 Enoch 1:9 to the “seventh-from-Adam Enoch”—an ascription that has long given Christian exegetes concern. Tertullian felt that it conferred canonical authority on the whole of 1 Enoch. Some contemporaries of Saint Jerome rejected the whole Letter of Saint Jude because it quoted a pseudepigraphon. St. Augustine, whose view prevailed generally, was willing to allow St. Jude to quote a single passage from 1 Enoch with out impairing his own apostolic authority or conferring canonical status on the entire pseudepigraphon.
Again, God has given us the account of His reconciling action in Jesus Christ not in one account, but in four gospels. As the Gospel came from the breath and breathing of God, it was a “four-shaped Gospel” (ettangelion tetramorphon), to use the happy term of St. Irenaeus. It was the anti-egghead Gnostic heretic Tatian who created for the church the first diatessaron. This is not to deprecate the value of the vast and reverent harmonistic effort that Christian exegetes have expended upon the gospels. Yet the fact persists that no harmony is wholly satisfying. We achieve the illusion of continuity only at the cost of suppressing data which the sacred writers provide by divine inspiration. The Synoptic problem and the problem of the Fourth Gospel remain real problems. From the genealogies and the chronology in the infancy narratives to the events of the resurrection and the 40 days following, we are confronted with episodes that appear in different sequences (for example, Matt. 8:1–4 and Luke 5:12–16; 6:20); with logia that appear in different forms which seem to reflect editorial adjustment in view of a different Sitz im Leben (for example, Mark 10:17, 18; Luke 18: 18, 19; Matt. 19: 16, 17); with subsidiary details that it is impossible to reconcile with certainty; and with parables that change their audience from evangelist to evangelist (for instance, Matt. 18:1, 10–14; Luke 15:2–7). Objectively, the question whether the rooster crowed once or twice before St. Peter’s third denial of our Lord on Good Friday morning (Mark 14:30, 72; Matt. 26:34, 74, 75; Luke 22:34, 60, 61; John 13:38; 18:27) is minor. More important are such problems as the time of the end in the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 and its parallels (or recensions) in Matt. 24:1–42 and Luke 21:5–35, and the text of the words with which our Lord instituted the most venerable Sacrament of the Altar.
In addition to the Gospels, we have other parallel accounts that diverge, some times vastly, sometimes merely in detail. A case in point is presented by the two books of Chronicles. When we compare them with the four books of Samuel and Kings it becomes dear that they by no means merely contain Paralipomena; from some points of view they are “Paraleiponta.” The variant accounts of David’s last days and Saul’s accession present one specific instance. Another involves the differences in the casualty reports after the battle of Helam in 2 Sam. 10:18 and 1 Chron. 19:18. There is the question if it was God (2 Sam. 24: 1) or Satan (1 Chron. 21: 1) who opposed Israel and incited David to number the nation. The military statistics given in 2 Sam. 24:9 are different from those given in 1 Chron. 21 :5; similarly, those given in 1 King 4:26 differ from those given in 2 Chron. 9:25. There are differences in the scope of the reformatory and military activity of Asa as reported in 1 Kings 15: 14, 16 and as reported in 2 Chron. 14:3, 5, 6. Again, the age of Ahaziah at his accession is reported differently by 2 Kings 8:26 and by 2 Chron. 22:2.
We have other phenomena. For instance, the apparently hyperbolic use of large numbers in the Old Testament (so possibly in 2 Chron. 13: 17 and 14:9) raises problems. So does the chronology of the Old Testament implied by the data of Gen. 5. when the Masoretic text is compared either with the Septuagint or with the postulates of even the most conservative datings of the earth and the universe by modern scientific methods. . . . Deborah sings a song (Judg. 5: 1) apparently written about her (v. 7 ). We have synchronistic problems connected with the death of Baasha (1 Kings 16:6–8 and 2 Chron.16: 1) and the accession of Hoshea (2 Kings 15:30 and 17:1). The 20-year-long reign of Pekah in 2 Kings 15:27, which 1 Kings 15:32 and 16:1 also imply, cannot be reconciled with the Assyrian synchronisms. We have another synchronistic problem in the dates of Hezekiah’s reign posed by 2 Kings 18:1 compared with 15:30; 18:2; 20:6.
We have variant accounts of events in what appear to be different sources within the sacred record. Cases in point are the creation accounts of Gen. 1:1–2:4a, and of 2:4b-3 :24; the twofold origin given for the names Beersheba (Gen. 21: 30, 31 and 26:32–38) and Bethel (Gen. 28:18, 19 arid 35 :15 ); the two callings of Moses and Aaron (Ex. 3:1–6:1 and 6:2–7:7); the location of Gen. 11 after Gen. 10 (compare especially 10:5, 20, 31 with 11:1 and 10:21–31 with 11:10–32 ); the different versions of the Decalog; the problem of reconciling the report of 1 Sam. 16: 18:-23 with 1 Sam.17:32-.38 and the conversation between Saul and David of 1 Sam. 17:55 to 58; the two references to the Goliath of Gath, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam (1 Sam. 17:4, 7, 49–51; 2 Sam. 21:18–22; see also 1 Chron. 20:5); and the number of children borne by Saul’s daughter Michal (2 Sam. 6:23 and 21:8), Deuteronomy 10:1–7 raises the problems of the maker of the ark of the covenant when compared with Ex. 37:1, of the date of the deposit of the second set of the tables of Law in the ark when compared with Ex. 19:1 and 40:17, 20, the itinerary of Israel when compared with Num. 33:30 to 39, and the time and place of Aaron’s death when compared with Num. 20:1, 22 to 29; 33:38; and Deut. 32:50.
The preceding is not intended to provide an exhaustive, but merely a representative, list of problems. Every serious student of the Sacred Scriptures is aware of these and many other difficulties. Admittedly, it is possible to explain some or all of the cited difficulties to one’s own satisfaction. But that they are genuine difficulties remains a fact attested by the volume of effort that Christian exegetes and systematicians have expended in endeavoring to account for them from the days of the primitive church on. It may be an index to the gravity of the problem that we in our time have difficulty in finding a categorical label for these Scriptural phenomena. We quite properly shy away from “contradictions,” “errors,” and “mistakes.” Yet such euphemisms as “paradoxes,” “discrepancies,” “disagreements,” and “variations” are hardly better.
The fact is that the truth of the Sacred Scriptures is something to be evaluated in terms of their own criteria and of the qualities which they themselves exhibit. These qualities do not—speaking generally—include great precision in formulation, stenographic fidelity in reporting exact words, prosaic literalism in interpretation, bibliographically accurate citations of author and title, comprehensive documentation, carefully synchronized chronologies, a modern historiographic sense, harmonistically consistent adjustment of sources to one another, and meticulously exact descriptions of attendant historical, physical, and other scientific details. These were not generally the qualities of the men or of the cultures which the Holy Spirit employed, and where these qualities are absent in the Sacred Scriptures this too is a mark of the Holy Spirit’s condescension and accommodation not to error but to humanity. Admittedly the picture of the Sacred Scriptures that emerges when all these factors are taken into account is likely to be less tidy than a purely theoretical construct, but it is also likely to be more realistic, more correct, and more genuinely truthful.
In the 16th century, a new locus of authority was needed for those breaking with Rome. Would it be a charismatic-prophetic figure, like a Thomas Müntzer? Or would it be the Scriptures themselves? If the latter, as read through whose interpretative grid? In time, an infallible church was swapped out for an infallible book (really, a collections of books). And an infallible book that was now not only available to laymen in their mother tongue but also perspicuous. The plowman reading his Bible in the field should be not only literate, and thus able to read the Bible for himself, but also discerning, and thus able to understand what he was reading: the truth of Scripture and not merely the words. (And yet Luther was horrified at what some in Germany found both in their Bibles and in his very own words that served to justify wide-scale social revolts. His response was something less than pastoral.)
That trope Piepkorn alludes to above, “Scripture interprets Scripture,” is popular in conservative confessional circles in and outside Lutheranism. But let’s be frank: it is terribly inadequate when it comes to explaining all or even most of those aforementioned “Scriptural phenomena.” (The late Harold Camping would regularly declare with the dead certainty of the fanatic that this was his hermeneutic, too. And we all know how well that went.)
What do we mean when we say the Scriptures are “clear”? Certainly not that all passages are equally clear (has anyone come up with a definitive clarifying explanation for that passage in Paul about baptism for the dead?). It is commonly said that the clear parts of Scripture should be used to interpret the unclear parts. Are we all agreed on what constitutes the clear parts? Want to start out with justification by faith or how baptism now saves?
The “perspicacity of Scripture” was a keen polemical tool in the Reformers’ fight against the ecclesiastical keepers of the keys to biblical exegesis. When the Reformers said the Bible was clear, well, it was clear to them, even when they couldn’t agree among themselves or even within their own camp. (Google Osiandrian, Majoristic, Antinomian, Crypto-Calvinist, and Adiaphorist controversies one day when you’re bored.)
What is clear, from Scripture and the practical realities of every Christian community through time, is that we all need teachers. And the church universal has enjoyed a wealth of teachers, some of whom are lauded as “Doctors” of the Faith by Rome and who continue to inform the faith of confessional Protestants, St. Augustine perhaps chief among them. Carl Trueman, a teacher in the Reformed tradition, makes the persuasive point that the Scriptures become clear as a new language becomes clear—over time, and aided by solid teaching from learned men who gift the individual Christian with a prism through which the Bible is then read in the privacy of his or her study.
In short, I think we would be wiser, and on more solid ground, if we insisted instead that the church interprets Scripture, and has done so in a variety of ways over many centuries, leaving room for more than one hermeneutical principle.(3)
Now, to circle back to the real point of this essay: what exactly do we mean by inerrancy? More specifically, what does the LCMS mean by it? Does it mean that the Holy Spirit dictated every last word to each of the biblical authors such that the apostles functioned as some kind of Heavenly Court stenographers? I found this on the Wiki page for “confessional Lutheranism“:
Inspiration does not consist in the inspiration of the message or the thought content only, neither does it apply to the biblical writers only, but it is a verbal inspiration, an inspiration of every word of the Bible. The Holy Spirit caused the writers to write the exact words which they wrote.
Really? Read that excerpt from Piepkorn again. If the Holy Spirit inspired every single word, then why would he want to inflict such millennia-long confusion among believers, when we read in Scripture that God is not the author of confusion? Are these all scribal errors? Apologists of verbal inerrancy often allude to “the original autographs”—texts no one has ever seen. Now I don’t know whether our copies differ that much from the originals. Every time we find an old, or older, biblical manuscript, the accuracy of our copies proves quite remarkable, with small discrepancies having no effect on any core doctrine or belief. But there are many scholars who see interpolations in the texts, which cannot be proved until older versions that lack the supposedly interpolated sentences are discovered.
Perhaps more pertinent to the LCMS is its 1973 declaration on inerrancy, which rejected certain liberalizing ideas, including:
- That portions of the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ contain imaginative additions, which had their origin in the early Christian community and do not present actual facts.
Like the mass resurrection in Matthew 27? (Remember the mess poor Matthew Licona found himself in when he dared make the assertion that “it seems to me that an understanding of the language in Matthew 27:52–53 as ‘special effects’ with eschatological Jewish texts and thought in mind is most plausible”?) You would think that, if a bunch of previously buried folk were suddenly running around asking if anyone had bothered to keep up the mortgage payments while they were gone, someone else would have noticed. But you have nothing like this account in any other Gospel or the writings of Paul.
The LCMS website has this definition of inerrancy:
The Lutheran position on the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures was first developed by the Lutheran dogmaticians (theologians) of the 17th century. For a review of this teaching and its roots following the period of the Reformation see Robert Preus, The Inspiration of Scripture in the Concordia Heritage Series (Edinburgh, 1955), 76–87. See also “F. The Infallibility of Scripture” in A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles.
I just happen to have a copy of The Inspiration of Scripture on hand. (But you knew that already.)
Robert Preus addresses not only what inerrancy is but also what it is not: “In describing the things of nature Scripture does not employ scientifically precise language, but describes and alludes to things phenomenally as they appear to our senses: for example, the fixity of stellar constellations and the magnitude of the stars (Is. 13:10; Judg. 5:20; Job 38:31; Amos 5:8; Job 9:9); the sun and moon as lights and the implication that the moon is larger than the stars (Gen. 1:16) . . . the sun as going around the fixed earth . . . Phenomenal language also explains why the bat is classified with birds. . . .”
No argument there. But I think it would be difficult to draw a fine line in every instance between phenomenal descriptions of natural data and what is intended as literal, precise, and factual—especially if we keep to a verbal inspiration—every last word. After all, if the Holy Spirit, who is God, inspires someone to write that Jesus was crucified at different times, or ascended into Heaven the day of His resurrection and 40 days later, etc., etc., He is deliberately misleading both the writer and the reader—or is this a case of the human element, human freedom, in the composition of Scripture? Preus implies that God, in inspiring the Word, accommodated language to contemporary ideas and basic human sense impressions (for example, the notion of a bat being a bird). Again, no argument from me. God always meets us where we are—and I do not believe the ancients understood literary genres in the exact same way we do, with all the picayune precision we bring to such distinctions. But with that said, I’d like to think they understood what a blatant contradiction was, and that they also had an understanding of what was “incredible” in their own world and what required eyewitness testimony to convince skeptics.
It should be noted that Preus draws this distinction: “Historical events are not described phenomenally as are the data of nature. . . . The historical genre employed by Scripture is apparently a unique form. As it cannot be judged according to the canons (whatever they may be ) of modern scientific historiography
History in Scripture is a “unique form” and cannot be “judged”? Why? Either something happened or it didn’t, no? There’s only one human history to draw on, albeit many interpreters of that history.
Inerrancy does not imply verbal exactness of quotations (for example, the words of institution, the words of Jesus on the cross). The New Testament ordinarily quotes the Old Testament according to its sense only. . . . Inerrancy does not imply verbal or intentional agreement in parallel accounts of the same event. . . . Apart from [certain] strictures any form of ancient literature is hypothetically compatible with Biblical inerrancy, for example, allegory (Gal. 4) and fable (Judg. 9:8–15), provided the genre is indicated directly or indirectly. At the same time it does not violence to inerrancy if the language of folklore or mythical elements serves as a means to cloth a Biblical author’s presentation of doctrine (for example, “helpers of Rahab” in Job 9:13; “Leviathan” in Job 3:8 and Ps. 74:12–15; Idumea as inhabited by centaurs, satyrs, and other strange creatures [Is. 34:14], meaning that Idumea will be devastated so that only such animals can live there). . . .
Why wouldn’t the Holy Spirit inspire the biblical authors to transcribe the words of institution exactly? Did He not remember? This is a blasphemous notion. And consider the place the sacrament has had in the life of the church down through the ages. Again, I agree wholeheartedly with Preus on this matter—if we’re willing to chuck the idea of verbal inspiration. There’s no other way around many obvious discrepancies, which I would not call errors, by the way, which is why the fallacy of false alternatives is something to keep in mind in this discussion. There can be significant differences in how the biblical writers intended their narratives to be interpreted theologically and spiritually, which would explain why John has the crucifixion coincide with the slaughter of the sacrificial lambs. It’s historically inaccurate but only an error if he didn’t know better and intended to convey something else entirely.
In the chapter “The Word of God in the Theology of Lutheran Orthodoxy,” Preus references the work of Abraham Calov, a 17th-century systematic theologian who championed inerrancy within Lutheran Scholasticism. A lengthy excerpt from Preus on Calov is worth considering in this context:
One final contribution of Calov to the whole question of inerrancy must be noted. Like many of the other theologians he lists in his discussion of inerrancy a number of general rules of interpretation which might serve to reveal what at first sight appears to be an error or contradiction in Scripture is no such thing. He recognizes, of course, that many problems will not be solved and many solutions will be only tentative and perhaps hazardous. It is in his exegetical works that [Calov] tackles these problems with rigor. The following are some of the rules which he presents. It will be noticed that Calov here combines the question of errors of fact and the question of contradictions in Scripture; his suggested helps apply to both questions.
- Statements which are simply repeated or which portray a common opinion of the day are not to be taken as stating the truth expressly . . .
- That which is spoken to a relative situation must not be taken as though it were set forth as an absolute assertion . . .
- Things are often described in Scripture in a phenomenal manner, not as they really are. . . . This observation (pre-Kantian) is quite significant. We can see how such a rule could be helpful in solving certain apparent discrepancies between the statements of Scripture and the conclusions of science. (Does this include the age of the earth/universe and the extent of Noah’s flood?—AMS)
- Holy writers, inspired as they were, sometimes preach and urge things as spokesmen of God, sometimes as private individuals.
- When two authors do not offer the same arrangement or chronology in presenting material, this does not in any way imply a contradiction. August Pfeiffer and others also dealt with this matter. Pfeiffer says that we must accord the Holy Spirit freedom in such matters. Discrepancies of chronology and numbering, etc., must be ascribed to different circumstances in which the authors lived, and naturally we do not know these circumstances as well as they. (But certainly the Holy Spirit did. What does this mean for verbal inspiration, in which every single word was chosen by God for inclusion in the sacred text?—AMS)
- Specific statements sometimes modify general statements.
- Certain historical occurrences are spoken of in Scripture according to a hysteron proteron.
- Different names for the same object often make Scripture appear to contradict itself. (An example here that is not a contradiction would have been helpful—AMS)
- Scripture sometimes spreads out time for the sake of harmony and consistency. . . . (Again, an example?)
- Scripture often speaks in round numbers.
- Sometimes occurrences which have only begun are spoken of in Scripture as though they were already completed.
- Future events are sometimes presented in Scripture as having already happened.
- Scripture employs the words of the world and of ordinary language to speak of things which concern God and eternity.
- Sometimes precepts are set down in Scripture by example not in so many words. . . . (This is not very helpful—AMS)
- Often the so-called mystical sense must be preferred to the literal sense of Scripture.
And with number 15, the ballgame is over.
On the surface, Calov’s appears a far more nuanced, sophisticated, and defensible view of inerrancy than the bare naked literalism of verbal inspiration as defined by that confessional document I sighted up top. And frankly, it’s a far more nuanced, sophisticated, and defensible view of inerrancy than actually prevailed in those churches that signed on to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. But with so many qualifications and open-ended observations—and finally a shout-out to that Reformation bug bear the “mystical sense,” let’s face it: you can justify just about any interpretation you like and still call the text “inerrant.”
With that said, I have never understood why, when confronted with discrepancies in the Scriptures, liberal and non-Christian critics immediately insist that this necessarily means error. (Although Luke makes it difficult not to. How many versions of Paul’s conversion are there? How long between the Resurrection and the Ascension?) To state unequivocally that there are errors in these narratives would mean you possessed a detailed and infallible understanding of everything that was between the ears of the biblical author at the time of composition, including a grasp of all his referents and linguistic quirks, and the embedding of Old Testament and intertestamental allusions.
In other words, for all the talk of the perspicacity of Scripture, serious Bible study is damn hard work, a life’s work, that requires a knowledge of not only the original languages but also all the other texts the biblical authors had access to and in mind when composing their Gospels and epistles. It most certainly precludes any idea of simple divine dictation.
So long as all these provisos are taken into consideration when speaking of inerrancy, why not continue to use the term? It has always seemed to me that there was so much more to the Lutheran tradition than you would ever know from reading most contemporary Lutheran polemics—especially online. All controversies are reduced to the most simplistic terms: liberal vs. conservative, inerrancy vs. skepticism, pietist vs. confessional.
Look, Luther had hard and fast opinions about most things, but he was not immune to history. Luther knew the early-church controversies about the authenticity of Hebrews, 2 Peter, Revelation. That didn’t make them worthless, but he did realize that texts have a history—a human history. The way you hear certain confessionals talk about the Bible, you’d think it was a magical book that dropped from heaven, befitting a description of how Muslims regard the Qur’an.
Think about the very act of translation for a minute. What role did the translation of Jesus’s Aramaic into Greek play in the biblical authors’ interpretation of God’s Living Word—i.e., Christ Himself? (All translation entails interpretation, especially when a language has no exact equivalent of the original from which the translation is being made. Consider: the Bible of the Apostles—that which was God-breathed by their lights—was not the Hebrew Scriptures but a Greek translation called the Septuagint: “the Seventy,” after the number of its translators. Think about the controversies over some of the choices in that translation, such as parthenos for Isaiah 7:14’s alma: “virgin” for “young woman.”)
And yet, we know this is not how things work in the real world of professional confessional Lutheranism. The view of inerrancy generally is a much narrower business, and the word is pulled out like a cudgel to beat down anyone who would actually take seriously those “general rules” of Calov (or, God help us, Genesis 1–3 as verifiable history).
Here’s an idea I’d like to throw out there. It’s just an idea, so everybody calm down. If you don’t believe it works, fine. Go get a Yoo-Hoo and wait for your blood pressure to settle.
What authority did the Apostles have to change quotations (see Preus on verbal inexactness above)? Now, we would all expect the writers to paraphrase or edit for length certain shared stories. But think about the Sermon on the Mount. Did Jesus say “Blessed are the poor in spirit“? or ‘Blessed are the poor“? Did the authority Jesus vested in that unique group of eyewitnesses—“He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16)—entail interpreting Jesus’s very own words and conveying them in the form that best expressed that interpretation? Could Matthew have known Mark’s text but change “poor” to “poor in spirit” because he believed that meaning was implicit and because it spoke more directly to his immediate audience?
So what does it matter if the ipsissima verba do not match up or the details of the genealogies or Resurrection vary? Each apostolic author had the freedom to recount the stories as he saw fit to convey both the events and also their meaning in relation to God’s ancient promises to his readers. The church is interpreting the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ongoing intercession of Jesus through the Holy Spirit within the very pages of Scripture itself.
The church doesn’t stand over Scripture, nor is Scripture merely a journalistic account of the church, but the church is in, under, and with the Word, mediating it as Christ’s own bride, His own body, with a unique authority.
Look at it this way: Why do we trust that this collection of manuscripts we call the New Testament has any relevance to divine truth at all? Two answers can be given: one historical and one existential/experiential. As a matter of documentary fact, the New Testament is the earliest and only coherent witness we have to Jesus, and Christians begin with Him when discussing issues of divine truth.
But how do we know it is a faithful witness to Jesus, and not merely a fantasy concocted by Paul and the writer of Mark (whose work was then reworked by Matthew and Luke)? Because a historical institution called the “church” substantiated the apostolic witness contained in those documents—that in those documents we hear, at the very least, the voices of the apostles—and so the voice of Jesus Himself.
As for the existential/experiential: the New Testament is a witness not only to the Jesus who raised the dead in the first century but also to the Jesus who raises the dead today, through the preaching of the Word and, most important, through baptism. The same Jesus is communicated: both in his human and divine natures.
When a preacher mounts the pulpit and puts into his own words the Gospel, and someone comes to faith, is convicted of his or her sins, repents, believes, asks to be baptized—do we say that this conversion is inauthentic because the words of the preacher were not verbatim the words of Scripture, which, of course, would be a translation into English of the original koine Greek—which itself is an interpretation of the original Aramaic?
I don’t think this is all that controversial, especially in light of the guidelines Preus lays out. The controversy begins when we start talking about Genesis. Then things get nasty. No accommodation to ancient human tradition/genre/sense impression there. Because . . . Jesus and Paul refer to Adam and to Noah? And Jesus and Paul would never had lowered themselves to employ metonomy?(4)
Here’s what bothers me about the way inerrancy works in so much churches. I will take the LCMS for one example, because it’s what I know best. You can affirm ex animo that:
- the Law-Gospel distinction is key to understanding the Scriptures, and that both must be preached;
2. every last word of the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, including the Virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection of Christ and his return in judgment;
3. the Real Presence in the sacrament and baptismal regeneration;
4. Scripture is the final and authoritative norm or norms for faith and morals;
5. we are saved by grace alone through faith alone by Christ alone, and that God alone is the author of our faith;
6. good works contribute nothing to our justification;
7. universal objective justification and election are both true;
8. the pastorate is limited to men only;
9. “that person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things that have actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross”; and
10. God rules the world by way of two kingdoms: the Gospel (believers/faith and non-compulsion) and the State (believers and nonbelievers/law and compulsion).
But, if you deny that Hoboken, New Jersey, was under water at the time of Noah’s flood . . . you’re out. Or at least suspect and marginalized should you ever want to work for the synod in any capacity.
Which is to swap out the true sine qua non of the Christian faith—justification by faith—for something else.
And the first person who tries to argue that If you don’t believe in inerrancy, then you have two sources of authority, just proves that he cannot begin to address the issues raised here. It’s a dodge, a feint, a misdirection, because the apologist cannot offer “safe” and denominationally approved responses to the specific examples cited. Look, the issue is not whether the Bible is the only authority in regard to salvation, but whether your interpretation of every passage is the only possible one given how educated Christians of different traditions cannot agree about the most fundamental doctrines (again, try baptism), never mind passages that blatantly contradict each other when merely taken at face value and no deeper.
Man, you people wear me out.
I recently finished James C. Burkee’s Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity. This is one account of the Seminex business that most definitely did not find favor with conservative confessional Lutherans. It was viewed more favorably by more liberal Lutherans (who would also describe themselves as confessional, it should be noted, but then you’re in a bar fight over what it means to be a confessional: quia vs. quatenus subscription and all that).
Very briefly (your laugh here), Burkee is a historian and a product of LCMS schools and a pretty conservative Republican. While studying the factions and controversies leading up to the Seminex walkout, Burkee decided that he wanted to write about it and that focusing on the Herman Otten–JAO Preus alliance/misalliance would prove for an interesting narrative.
Well, yes and no. If you knew nothing else about the LCMS, its seminaries, or theological leanings, especially in those controversial years—say, 1960 to 1981 or so—you’d assume the “winners” in the so-called Battle for the Bible were a bunch of manipulative, bigoted, double-dealing, back-stabbing, power-hungry politicos. It’s a tendentious reading of the whole affair and does not do justice to what the conservatives saw as the real crux of the issue: the gospel.
These reservations notwithstanding, Burkee does present a lot of what appear to be verbatim transcriptions of taped discussions (yes, you had players putatively on the same side of the biblical-inerrancy divide tape-recording each other) and eyewitness accounts that do not reflect well on either Preus, who was president of the St. Louis seminary and later of the LCMS, or Herman Otten, about whom many conservative confessionals tend to stay mum. And with good reason.
Who was, is, Herman Otten, who looms large over the proceedings in Burkee’s rendering of this battle for the Bible? Otten is the defender of inerrancy par excellence, publisher of a tabloid called Christian News, the closest thing confessional Lutherans have to a National Enquirer (but I daresay very few actually read it anymore). But to call him a super-gnesio-Lutheran, whatever, would not do justice here, or be fair to other conservative/traditionalist Lutherans. Otten remains a firm believer in biblical inerrancy and an execrator of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the RSV translation of the Bible. He also believed (and still does) that evolution was a hoax. Otten is a lesser figure in Boyagoda’s bio of RJN, but he’s there, all right. What Boyagoda leaves out (unless I missed it in a footnote somewhere) is that Otten thinks the Holocaust is a hoax, too.
The Holocaust is a hoax and the time has come for Christian scholars and pastors to recognize this and stop perpetrating a hoax as the truth. A Christian is not free to believe and promote a lie about any person or nations, as we said in our introduction. True Christian scholars should at least read what the Revisionists are saying.
Many have said to us: “What difference does it make? The truth of the Holocaust is of no concern to Christians.” Nonsense! A Christian is not free to believe and promote a lie about any person or nation. A Christian is guided by truth and facts, not emotions and majority opinion.
If Christians can accept as historical fact the Holocaust, despite all the powerful evidence that it is a hoax, what does that say about their ability to evaluate evidence? What about their scholarship? Is it any wonder that some Revisionists, who have made a careful study of the Holocaust, question the scholarship of Christians, so many of whom swallow as absolute truth what is clearly a hoax?
I have been told numerous times, even by theologians who claim to be orthodox: “I don’t care whether it was six million or one Jew, even one is too many.” Such an attitude shows contempt for the truth. A Christian is to show true love and the Apostle Paul tells us that love is “happy with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). The writing of Proverbs tells us: “Speak out for those who can’t speak, for the rights of those who are doomed. Talk up, render fair decisions, and defend the rights of the poor and needy peoples” (Proverbs 31:9).
Now Otten may seem a bit of a diversion but he really is at the intersection of RJN’s biography and the inerrancy fight within the LCMS. Otten is obviously an unsavory character who was denied certification within the LCMS—just barely. His church, Trinity Lutheran, was first denied, then granted, status within the denomination. Reading Burkee’s account, Otten was either a worthy ally in a good fight against the liberals or a fanatic and bigot best ignored—depending on whose agenda was at what stage of advancement.
What Otten tried to do to Richard John Neuhaus over the years (and not merely while in seminary), and to many whose views of Scripture were thoroughly orthodox, in that they did not challenge the creedal affirmations of the early church, but did not measure up to Otten’s desiccated literalism, was worthy of a Wehrmacht commander who’d lost sight of his target and so decided to bomb everything just to make sure he killed someone.
Read Burkee’s book for yourself. (But you may also want to balance it with Kurt Marquart’s Anatomy of an Explosion.) Again, it’s by no means the whole of the Seminex story, but to ignore the tactics employed by the conservatives to win the debate over their construal of inerrancy is . . . depressing. (Although, compared with the power politics of, say, the Roman Catholic Church at key points in its history, the LCMSers comes across as schoolboys taunting each other with spitballs and epithets scrawled on bathroom walls.)
Fast-forward to the Matthew Becker controversy, which is just the old Seminex controversy redivivus.
The LCMS had no official stance on the age of the Earth for a very long time, yet I see rumblings now of the church going full Ken Ham YEC. Whether this is to buttress the anti-evolution stance or because they fell for the trap of adding up the age of the patriarchs, I don’t know. But that will not end well. And those of us who see more than that in Scripture—layers of development, of allusion, of meaning—and who have to go outside the Lutheran camp to get sustenance, will have to leave the LCMS or keep a very loose association. And that’s been my dilemma for the last ten years.
Look, I left the Faith as a kid because the interpretation of Scripture in my LCMS Sunday School and high school seemed just silly to me. Granted, I had the spiritual maturity of a Babylonian temple guard, but there weren’t many resources for those of us convinced that Christianity, at least the Lutheran variety, wasn’t for grown-ups. It was literalism right down to the baby dinosaurs on the ark. It had no use for critical thinking on these matters, because that smelled of heresy, which led me to believe it was hiding from something: modern science, common sense, something. But mere credulity, especially when it’s motivated more by fear of a backlash from the keepers of scriptural integrity, is no virtue, and does God no favors. I never understood why it was believed that superstition—literally, overbelief—honored the God who gave us the power of reason. And reason can be helpful in coming to terms with the fact that texts have a history—a human history, as much as a divine history—and that because there is so much we don’t know about the composition of the New Testament that a little hermeneutical humility on all sides would be in order.
The irony here, of course, is that those who scream most loudly about inerrancy would be considered liberals by many of the Old Guard. Think Franz Pieper. A few years back I bought his four-volume systematics. I eagerly cracked the spine on volume one (1924) and began reading his anti-Copernican argument that sought to preserve the integrity of the biblical cosmology as well as Luther’s own time-bound biases. I immediately boxed the volumes up and sent them back (God bless you Amazon).
This kind of “this is true because I need it to be true, because it best reflects the authentic Lutheran tradition, because liberalism/Darwinism/modernism” mentality has all the earmarks of what you’d expect to hear in a cult.
And yet … geocentrism has fallen out of favor in most confessional circles. Why? The text reads the same way, certainly. Could it be . . . science? Natural revelation? Or is it a mere embarrassment now, and so we have recourse to that mellifluous phrase “phenomenal language”?
Remember when Paul argued against the legalists who demanded circumcision for entrance into the church? “I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves”? Well, I say, if you truly want to be faithful to the biblical picture of the physical world, then I wish you would go the whole way.
The earth is described as a “circle”—a disc—round but flat, with a firmament above that kept the waters out and Sheol beneath. Please be consistent, and ensure that all students of confessional Lutheranism understand that whatever else they may have heard or read, God’s truth trumps man’s truth.
And please don’t tell me the biblical authors were speaking “figuratively,” because whenever I argue, a la C.S. Lewis, that the opening chapters of Genesis are myth,(5) I’m inevitably asked, “Where does the Bible say that?” OK, where does it say that the language regarding the physical world is figurative and not scientifically accurate?(6) Where does it say that Jesus was speaking metaphorically when he said if you had faith the size of a mustard seed you can move mountains? If you say, well, common sense, experience reading different kinds of texts, Jesus knew what a metaphor was (like when Baptists claim this for This is my body?), etc., then we’re introducing extrabiblical tools into our hermeneutical toolkit, agreed?
But how can that be? See this post by Martin Noland over at the Steadfast Brothers site, in which he discusses the Seminex battle for inerrancy. Here’s one quote:
“We hold that the opinion that Scripture contains errors is a violation of the sola scriptura, for it rests upon the acceptance of some norm or criterion of truth above the Scriptures.” The norm or criterion of truth for Liberal theology is the internal authority of the religious-person’s own mind, informed by the preaching of the Liberal preacher and scholarship of the Liberal professor. So according to the Liberal perspective, whatever the religious-person finds offensive, or disagreeable, or contradictory, or problematic in the Bible must be an error and rejected by definition. The idea of “Biblical inerrancy” is thus not just an affirmation of the quality of the Bible, but is really a rejection of the fundamental principle of the Liberal worldview.
“Some norm or criterion of truth above the Scriptures.” Like common sense? The geological record? Space travel? There are such things as natural law and natural revelation, from which real facts can be derived by believers and unbelievers alike, no?
I remember turning on Issues Etc. show a few months back and hearing a serious adult talking about how Noah got those baby dinosaurs on the ark. That’s when you don’t know whether you’re listening to a podcast from The Onion or not.
Confessional Lutherans who insist on young-earth creationism, a worldwide flood (which left no record of itself), etc., don’t understand what they have in common with the postmoderns they often deride. Tell a typical progressive that facts matter, that biology matters, that history matters, and you’re told, well, these are social constructs or you have your paradigm/truth and I have mine.
Well, I guess Lutherans have their science and MIT and NASA have their own? Lutherans have their geology, their physics, their biology, and the “world” has its own? It’s all a matter of which social construct, which presuppositions you embrace?
So, shall we then fight for Lutheran Science in public school curricula?
When I was in high school, I liked to ask such silly questions as “Where did Cain get his wife?” I inevitably was given silly answers, so I decided that Christianity was not for anyone who wanted to learn to think critically and not merely mime what had been scripted for them in order to stay in the good graces of this or that group of right-thinkers. (There is a left-wing version of this, of course, which the Blob’s book reviewer is a perfect example of.) I left the Faith for years, thinking I had forsaken nothing but brain freeze sans ice cream.
Thank God for C.S. Lewis, whose work I encountered in my 20s and who showed me there was more than one way to read the Bible and to be a Christian. (Which is probably why I continue to have a soft spot for Anglicanism, at least in its orthodox instantiations.)
Lest anyone think otherwise: this is not a plea for the wholesale infallibility of the historical-critical method. That is a hermeneutic not just of suspicion but often of destruction. A Christian cannot approach the Bible as he would any other book, because that is to deny the very idea of revelation. If you begin deconstructing the Gospels as if there were no God and He cannot, does not, communicate his will to us, then Christ is still in the tomb. When an unbeliever, a scoffer, picks up the Scriptures, he will find only that Christ is still dead—unless the Holy Spirit works faith in that person, at which point the Bible reveals both the crucified and the risen Christ for him, and can no longer be just one “religion book” among other religions books.
And yet . . .
I was amused a while ago to watch the attack dogs set on the Gospel Coalition’s Justin Taylor when he dared write that there could be more than one way to think about the time sequence in Genesis 1, with a link to a PCA document that also wrestles with this issue. Janet Mefferd, who hosts a popular evangelical talk radio program (and who is usually given credit for giving the first hard spin to Mark Driscoll’s death spiral), even weighed in with this twerp:
Is now the right time to say I wouldn’t recommend readers go on Justin Taylor’s blog after what he did to Genesis? #wowthatfeltgood
I bet it did feel good, which is why I recommend never listening to her radio program again. #wowthatfeltbetter
And of course, someone at Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis had to respond with a lengthy essay that includes the killer insight that Adam wrote at least part of Genesis under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (And by “killer,” I’m referring to brain cells.)
I think it pointless to ask the LCMS or any other fundamentalist or confessional denomination to reconsider the way it interprets Genesis. They hold to these literalist views for a reason. And that reason has nothing to do with reason. Not that such folk are stupid (and I apologize if my snark gets the best of me). It’s just . . . that’s not how religion works.
I’m convinced that most people embrace a religion out of fear. Not of damnation, mind. Most people don’t give serious consideration to that. First of all, if you believe in the classical Reformation doctrine of election, salvation/damnation is out of your hands. Whether there is a hell, whether people are set on fire for all eternity, for only a little while, whether the reprobate are annihilated—this is all irrelevant. If God has chosen to give saving faith to some and not to others, what possible difference does the nature or duration of hell make? What difference does it make whether the preacher even mentions hell? Either you’re in or you’re out. Salvation has nothing to do with you. You are, in a sense, irrelevant. It all has to do with Jesus and whom the Father gives to Jesus. Your “choices” (and in this understanding of salvation, “choice” must always be in irony quotes) or beliefs pre-regeneration are just so much chin music.
No, what people fear is this life. The contingencies, randomness, sheer stupidity of this life. People need a rudder, a focus, a cushion for hard landings, meaning, hope—for this life. And more often than not, a very narrow understanding of how one gets God’s attention in this life means you often have to believe things that are not just miraculous, but daft.
Again, I’m not asking anyone to change his or her mind on what constitutes fidelity to the Scriptures if it really means ultimately apostasy. If you believe the earth can be no more than 6,000 to 10,000 years old, and that God created it in six countable 24-hour days, and that the discrepancies between the two creation accounts are no such thing, and that Noah literally packed dinosaurs on that ark, and that both infancy narratives are noncontradictory and verifiable history in every detail—otherwise all Scripture is a lie and Jesus didn’t die for your sins—then … OK.
We now have the Matthew Becker business. Matthew Becker, for those who do not know, is (or was) a rostered LCMS pastor and profession of theology at Valparaiso University in Indiana. For years, Professor Becker has taught publicly that he believed in, and was fighting for, changes in LCMS doctrine, practice in a number of areas, including the ordination of women and a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis 1–3. (For Becker’s take on this, go here.)
Everyone must be asking themselves right about now, why didn’t he just move to the ELCA, where his beliefs would be embraced, rather than stir up all this trouble in a denomination that was never going to move in this direction?
My opinion (and that’s all it is)? For the same reason Garry Wills remains a “Roman Catholic.” If you hold to these views and stay within a confessional or conservative or traditional denomination, you’re a maverick, a bold thinker-of-things-that-are-no-longer-in-the-box. But if you’re in TEC or ELCA, then … you’re a bore.
The idea that Professor Becker just wanted “dialogue” within the LCMS is, in my opinion, baloney. The conservatives are right in this regard: it starts with a plea for diversity, and ends with the traditional view being shut out altogether. There is enough evidence for this in what is happening to traditional parishes within TEC.
So Becker is moving on. That’s for the best. If you don’t believe what your church teaches, just leave. This is still (for the time being anyway) a free country. Neither the pope nor Matthew Harrison is out in the streets grabbing people by the scruff of the neck and throwing them into his respective church, telling them to pray, pay, and obey. There are plenty of mainline denominations that welcome “mavericks.”
This is why I have never rejoined an LCMS church. I do not believe the earth is 6,000–10,000 years old, or that the discrepant creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 are both historical and noncontradictory.
The problem with the way both the ELCA and the LCMS do theology is that they have elevated a hermeneutic—the former that of suspicion and the latter that of bare literalism—to be absolutely indispensable to their denominational identity. It is no longer possible to affirm Lutheran distinctives “from the heart” and the core doctrines inscribed in the creeds as a sign of fidelity. No. You now must insist that Noah packed that ark with baby dinosaurs and that the Lord God creator of heaven and earth needed 24 hours—no more and no less—to separate the waters from the dry land.
This isn’t a plea for some kind of creational evolution, as per BioLogos. That’s to imply that Genesis is science. There is no science in the Bible, as Stanley Jaki has written repeatedly. There is a cosmogony. If you want inerrancy, then that should bet the picture of the physical universe every LCMS congregant should be taught is the truth, regardless of what those unenlightened “scientists” argue. If you want inerrancy, then the “phenomenal” dodge should be seen as just that: say it loud, say it proud—Copernicus was a bum!
For the watchdogs of doctrinal purity, you can never be pure enough, and there can never be enough sheer superstition made fundamental doctrine for their satisfaction.
Now, is there way to read Scripture and do theology that preserves the orthodox and traditional Nicene Faith while still remaining open to various interpretations of controversial and difficult passages in Scripture? Catholics seem to do it. Eastern Orthodox seem to do it. But that would require some kind of authority that enforces doctrinal fidelity while leaving room for how one gets there. I thought that was the true purpose of the Protestant confessions. I was wrong.
I do know that the old apologetics, that of John Warwick Montgomery and Gleason Archer and the “harmonizers,” is just so much silliness to me now. They put me in mind of Osiander, whom Albert Schweitzer references in the opening of chapter 2 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus:
Osiander (1498–1552), in his “Harmony of the Gospels,” maintained the principle that if an event is recorded more than once in the Gospels, in different connections, it happened more than once and in different connexions. The daughter of Jairus was therefore raised from the dead several times; on one occasion Jesus allowed the devils whom He cast out of a single demoniac to enter into a herd of swine, on another occasion, those whom He cast out of two demoniacs; there were two cleansings of the Temple. …
Better the laconic statement of Luther (also cited by Schweitzer): “If a difficulty arises in regard to the Holy Scripture and we cannot solve it, we must just let it alone.”
There will come a time, perhaps in a hundred years or so if the Lord tarries, when Genesis 1 will come under the “phenomenal” rubric, and those literal six 24-hour days will become “ages” or some such.(8) Who will be left to hear this is unclear. It will be pretty much like desegregation in Lutheran schools and congregations. Do nothing until the culture makes it impossible not to do nothing, then argue it’s the “law” and “two kingdoms” and History/Science has spoken.
Now, I don’t want to leave this on such a sour note, because this is more of a lament than anything else. The LCMS was my patrimony, and I thought perhaps I had left something valuable behind, and so sought to return and find my ecclesial home finally. To come to the exact point where I left it years ago as a teen, only to leave it again as a middle-age adult, is damned demoralizing.
In Anatomy of an Explosion, the Rev. Dr. Kurt E. Marquart, himself a theologian, professor, and pastor within the LCMS, tells the story of the Seminex days from the point of a view of a “traditionalist.” Early on in the book, Dr. Marquart addresses the Lutheran theological “awakening” that took place in the 19th century:
There were essentially two forces against which the Lutheran Awakening reacted. One was the policy of church-union, pursued with notable vigour by the Prussian government. This meant that the Lutheran and the Calvinist or “Reformed” churches were merged by government decree into a hybrid organism whose lack of spiritual virility may well have played a part in paving the way for modern Germany’s tragedies. The other force, looming behind the Union-movement, was the spectre of Rationalism, which sacrificed all the holy mysteries of Christianity to a shallow but arrogant “reasonableness.” As a result, the differences between Lutherans and Reformed—above all, whether we received in the Holy Supper the true and life-giving body and blood of Christ, or only pictures and reminders—came to be regarded as unimportant.
Those who treasured the full Gospel riches of the Reformation heritage knew that they could surrender neither the Christ of the Bible to the Rationalists, nor His Sacrament to the Reformed Union. Against this background it becomes perfectly clear why the strict Lutherans, including the founders of the Missouri Synod, gave pride of place to two great principles, the Biblical and the Confessional. And like their opposites, Rationalism and Unionism, the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions are not separate, unrelated entities. The Confessional principle presupposes the Biblical, since Reformation doctrine rests squarely on Scripture alone; but on the other hand the Confessions spell out the real thrust and content of Scripture against denials and distortions. Mere assertions of the Bible’s authority mean little unless the Bible’s actual substance is confessed.
The debate, of course, is what exactly constitutes that substance, and what exegetical tools are appropriate in mining it.
Another point needs making. Those who hold to that plain and literal reading of Genesis and Jonah and Job and Joshua and Matthew are far less likely to betray nonnegotiables of the Faith—for example, the Virgin Birth and the physical, bodily Resurrection of Christ. (We have seen in the rise of modalism among some charismatic groups, however, that it certainly does not safeguard against all heresy.) Moreover, the six-day creationists have to their credit an early rejection of Darwinism’s bastard child, the eugenics movement—something the mainline churches embraced wholeheartedly. The doyens of the Episcopal and Methodist and Congregational churches liked to refer to their conservative and creationist counterparts as “‘the intellectual equivalents of canopic jars; full of the desiccated remains of their elders’ views of culture and science,’ incapable of addressing the major concerns of modern society. The liberals believed, as expressed by Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch, that modern theology ‘must always embody the best thought of its age or its age will seek religion outside of theology.’” You mean, in science?(7) But does that mean one must believe what is still scientifically untenable—consider geocentrism—just to ensure you do not stray too far afield in other important matters of faith and morals?
Is it possible to affirm six-day creation as necessary to protect the Faith in all its particulars, while also acknowledging that these are not scientific statements and can never be and that they stand in tension with general revelation? Or would the cognitive dissonance prove unsustainable?
(I think something is far more important in protecting the substance of the faith that insisting on a doctrine of “inerrancy,” and that the doctrine of the real bodily presence in the Sacrament. As Dr. Marquart noted, that crushes both rationalism and errant forms of Protestantism.)
When I first returned to the Lutheran faith after leaving the Presbyterian Church in America, back in 2005, my problem was finding a church that hadn’t gone all happy-clappy evangellyfish. Now, ten years later, I have different concerns. Is there a confessional Lutheran body that can utilize a full set of exegetical tools, that does not demand we read back into these ancient texts our own demands of historical accuracy, as opposed to theological accuracy? (I have no doubt the apostolic writers reworked traditional material and even crafted stories out of whole cloth as kingdom parables that served to identify Christ as both the promised messiah and the Son of God.) The ELCA has certainly failed in this regard, what with its pulpit and altar fellowship with TEC, UMC, and UCC ministers, among other deviations from the broader catholic tradition.
I hesitate to join, say, a continuing Anglican body, because, as I said above, there are Lutheran distinctives that remain meaningful to me, and the Lutheran faith is my heritage (although one could chalk that up to mere sentimentality). Plus, not all Anglicans have held fast to that aforementioned sacramental realism. But on my deathbed I’d like to be able to call a pastor from some church to tell him where all that Vegas money is buried, and how it was all Danny Ocean’s idea from the start.
Well, as I am wont to do, I have traveled far from my opening grafs on the new biography of Richard John Neuhaus. Barring some special revelation from the Holy Spirit, which I do not anticipate, I will not be following in his footsteps to Rome, my last name not withstanding. But I continue to appreciate RJN’s keen intellect and historically informed apprehension of the depth and breadth of the Faith. And if you should pick up Boyagoda’s book, keep something in mind: if you forget that, first and foremost, Richard John Neuhaus was a pastor, you will miss his priorities. And if you don’t know how easy it was for him to give people the benefit of the doubt in an explanation of their circumstances, which all too often made him an easy mark, you will misunderstand some of his loyalties. And if you are unaware of what communism wrought in the life of Christians in the East during the long Cold War, you will be too dismissive of some of his judgments.
And if you find yourself adrift in a sea of denominational, confessional, exegetical strife, without a good-humored, quick-witted, and steely-eyed guide to keep you oriented to the ancient ways, you will simply . . . miss him.
I leave you with the words of the great confessional Lutheran hero Herman Sasse😦9)
Do errors and contradictions belong to the human side of the Bible? . . . What is not in question and for Christians ought never be a matter of question is the absolute inerrancy . . . of the Scripture in all articles of faith, in all questions that pertain to the relationship of men to God and that pertain to our salvation. There are no theological errors in Scripture. . . . The question is solely and alone whether this inerrancy . . . can and must be extended to statements of a non-theological kind, that is, above all, to all historical accounts and to all statements about nature. . . .
I’ll leave it to you to guess what his answer was.
- I put “conservative” in air quotes because there are older and more “traditional,” hence one could argue more “conservative,” ways to read Scripture (consider the classical “fourfold sense”). That doesn’t mean they are necessarily appropriate for Protestants today, only that the church is more than 500 years old. I put “conservative” in air quotes also because there remains some debate as to Otten’s standing among other confessionals at that time, and how big his role really was in pushing the “liberalizers” out the door. It should be noted that Otten was denied ordination in the LCMS, but the reasons even for that vary—whether he was undermined by his enemies in the historical-critical camp or he was a crank whose views on history even then were making people nervous. This discussion board gives you a taste of both his defenders and critics.
- I am as ecumenical as the next person who is as ecumenical as I am. Which is saying a lot, or nothing at all, depending on how much you’ve been drinking. But the key doctrinal sticking point between Lutherans and Rome—justification by faith alone, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner, which is the sine qua non of the Lutheran reform—remains on the table, alive and kicking, as far as confessional Lutherans being absorbed into Rome goes. (This despite the “joint declaration“ of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican. That “World” is to be taken in the same sense as “World” in “World Series.”)
- I just finished reading Richard B. Hays’s phenomenal Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Witness of the Gospels, in which he argues, quite persuasively, that the whole Mark = low Christology and John = high Christology is bunk. On the contrary: if you can discern the OT echoes in Mark, there is no doubt that the author is making the case, less then one generation after Christ’s crucifixion and before the destruction of the Temple, that Jesus embodies the very divine presence expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures, yet without making a simple identification such that the distinction between Father and Son is lost. There is no mistaking it: Mark is confessing that Jesus is God, in muted tones, no doubt—but who wouldn’t, given the implications? The material on Jesus’s walking on the water and the echo of Yahweh’s “trampling the sea” in Job 9 is marvelous stuff. I highly recommend the book, and all of Hays’s work, even if you don’t agree with every jot and tittle of his methodology or theological commitments.
- Even though the Wellhausen documentary hypothesis has come into disrepute, there are a lot of reasons for believing that the Pentateuch is not the work of a single hand (check out Numbers 12:3 for one very short and funny example). And for those who immediately object that Jesus refers to Moses and the books he wrote, let me offer this. Forget that Jesus’s human nature may have limited his earthly knowledge to that of a religious Jew of the first century (would Jesus have known how to construct a hydrogen bomb or a microwave oven or a supercollider?). After all, he does admit that there are things, even of a heavenly nature, that he did not know. Instead imagine that I said to you, “I need to find out what the primary spelling of scepticism is: hand me that book and let me see what Webster has to say.” Do you believe for a minute that I think Daniel Webster wrote every last word of the 11th Collegiate Dictionary, which is the authoritative reference guide for many, if not most, copy editors and proofreaders in the U.S.? No. However, does that mean that Webster had nothing to do with the dictionary’s composition, that it was not his work that remains foundational to that text, and without whom we would not have that particular text in that form? Also no. In other words, it is not meaningless or merely a matter of habit to refer to the dictionary as “Webster’s.” You know what I mean by it, I know what I mean by it. So, is it impossible—literally impossible—that Jesus, and Paul for that matter, could have used references to Moses, or to Adam, in the same way? Consider again Piepkorn’s argument, about how strangely the New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament in some instances, and the role the pseudepigrapha and the apocrypha played in their thinking, and that the Septuagint itself is not just a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures but also an interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, as all translations must be? If you say, “Yes, it is impossible because the text doesn’t say that Jesus or Paul is referencing Moses or Adam in that way,” I again refer you to Piepkorn’s example of the proverbial sayings that would prove embarrassing if taken literally, yet do not come with instructions that say “Read this and this metaphorically.” We assume they are metaphors from common sense and common experience. I know Reason is a whore, but she isn’t an idiot.
- Consider the patristic “fourfold” sense. Yes, the allegorical sense seems to have usurped the literal by the time of the Reformation, which explains the emphasis the Reformers placed on a literal or plain reading of the texts. But that does not mean that a paradigm that demands a plainly literal reading to verses that have offered up multiple interpretations over the centuries cannot be open to a reconsideration today.
- For example, are we talking about microevolution—changes within species; or macroevolution—humans evolved from lower primates physically; or a Darwinian and materialist worldview that demands a “blind” and unguided process via natural selection; or anything that calls into question a very short timeline involving the special creation of all creatures? If you asked me my opinion, I’d say I am happy to go where the real science leads—but no farther. Much of what is smuggled in under the rubric “evolution” is materialist cant. All Christians are creationists in the sense that we all believe that God is not only the creator of heaven and earth but also the sustainer of all life. So any theory or hypothesis that demands an unguided process of natural selection must be rejected by any theist. However, even if macroevolution were proved to be a hoax tomorrow, or much more modest in its effects in relation to the advent of homo sapiens, that still wouldn’t convince me that Genesis 1 is not myth, even as I believe that we can still posit a historical “Adam,” as did C.S. Lewis, that is, an original God-image-bearing man at some point in human development, from whom we are all descended and to whom we all owe our alienated condition. I believe a picture is given us in Genesis that is true as far as depicting our fallen state and God’s promise of a Redeemer but the actual details are lost in prehistory. (If they were not, where is Eden now? Where are the cherubim with their flaming swords? Are they merely invisible? Or did the Flood wash all that away?) And for those who say, “But where in Scripture does it say Genesis 1 is myth,” I would respond, Where in Scripture does it say we should take the anatomy lesson cited by Piepkorn as a metaphor? The plain grammar is pretty straightforward? Or as St. Augustine asked, Why does God, who is omnipotent, and outside of time, need “24 hours” to create anything? As if Scripture never uses numbers in a symbolic sense. Another point should be mentioned, because I see this come up now and again, that a rejection of literal 24-hour days in the creation of heaven and earth has little to do with fearing “embarrassment” before one’s non-Christian, evolution-worshiping peers, as if belief in the Trinity and the Resurrection and a final judgment doesn’t already open you up for ridicule among the cool kids. I sometimes think that the literalists themselves think it cool to be countercultural, and so brandish their lack of cachet among their cultured despisers as itself a kind of weird hipster cred.
- There is a difference between refusing to accept each and every pronouncement from Stephen Hawking or Oxford as Holy Writ; or affirming that science—as atheists love to remind us—is self-correcting, such that many of its cherished beliefs may be upended by new discoveries; and arguing that there can be such a thing as “Lutheran science.” I understand the psychological comfort in believing that you have all truth in a single text you can tuck into a pocket, and all the assurance you will ever need that what you believe is irrefutable fact because it came from the very mouth of God, including how the heavens go. But God may have methods that are intentionally disconcerting. Might he not have inspired his prophets and apostles where they were not only in time and space but also culturally and cognitively, as he does each and every one of us when he gives us the same Holy Spirit that inspired them? Does the Spirit suddenly imbue us upon conversion with sudden, special theological knowledge other than that Jesus is Lord and saves us from our sin? That does not mean the apostles were not unique in their relationship to the Risen Christ. Paul certainly was, even though he never met Jesus when He walked the earth. Jesus apparently taught him directly. That also does not mean that Scripture is any less authoritative or infallible in what it confesses about Jesus’s identity and the Law and the Gospel and all that we must believe to be converted and made new creatures in Christ. It is infallible, certainly, in such matters, regardless of how the biblical authors employed their source materials or structured their texts or even edited the tradition to convey their message. (Let’s also be clear: People who “believe in science” are as credulous in their own way as any theist—that is, they accept as fact what can only be a matter of faith. Think about the odds of intelligent, self-conscious life arising on this or any planet by blind “forces.” Richard Dawkins may think he’s put paid to William Paley’s watchmaker argument, but what that analogy typically leaves out is that the watch is also found with instructions—namely, the laws of physics. How do atheists deal with this? They pull the multiverse hypothesis out of their butts: “Look, there are probably an infinite number of universes in which different physical laws operate on different terms. Our universe just happens to be ‘constructed’ (without foresight, of course, so we must watch our language) on the basis of ‘rules’ we discern at work here.” And yet, “Jim Baggott, David Gross, Paul Steinhardt, George Ellis and Paul Davies have argued that the multiverse question is philosophical rather than scientific, that the multiverse cannot be a scientific question because it lacks falsifiability, or even that the multiverse hypothesis is harmful or pseudoscientific.” Just like religion if you take the new atheists at their word.)
- For a take on what the Fathers meant by the “literal sense” of Scripture versus what fundamentalists and most confessionals mean, read this by David Bentley Hart.
- If you can find a copy of Hermann Sasse’s Scripture and the Church, grab it. It’s out of print, and CPH does not appear to have any interest in preprinting it if this blog post, again by Martin Noland, is any indication of how confessionals in the LCMS feel about Sasse’s views on this topic. Here is a nice excerpt that gives a taste of Sasse’s views. If there had been a Lutheran congregation that was strictly liturgical (spare me children’s church, Power-Appointed screens, praise music in praise of its own self-reflexive repetitiveness, puppet shows, mimes, whirling dervishes) and allowed for such a viewpoint, a lot of my ecclesiastical problems would have gone poof a long time ago.
UPDATE (September 9, 2016): I came across this post on the aforementioned Matthew Becker’s blog, another interesting tidbit from the LCMS’s history:
Remarkably, there was a time in LCMS history when contemporary tools of biblical study, including the legitimate use of the modern historical-critical method, were commended to the Synod’s own membership. In the CTCR committee’s report to that 1969 convention, the ten-member group could even write publicly:
“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” (1969 LCMS Convention Workbook, 5). Remember, the names that stood behind these words included Robert Preus, Raymond Surburg, H. Armin Moellering, and Ralph Bohlmann.
A Lutheran Stance toward Contemporary Biblical Studies sets forth basic presuppositions for a faithful interpretation of Holy Scripture, “the basic and legitimate elements of the so-called historical-critical method,” and “necessary controls” for the rightful use of that method.
Within the section on presuppositions, the committee stated the following:
“In hearty agreement with the Lutheran Confessions we affirm that the right understanding of the Gospel (including the proper distinction of Law and Gospel as grounded in the article of justification) is the key that finally unlocks the meaning of Sacred Scripture (Apology, IV, 2-5; FC, SD, V, 1). We therefore hold that all theological questions raised by any interpretation must be posed and answered with reference to this central concern of the Scriptures. We also hold that those technical questions involved in interpretation which neither aid nor impair the right understanding of the Gospel (in its full sense) ought not become a matter of controversy in the church” (A Lutheran Stance toward Contemporary Biblical Studies, pp. 8-9).
I would spend the money to buy A Lutheran Stance toward Contemporary Biblical Studies, but it seems to me it would be little more than reading the fossil record right about now—and as we know, geology is bunk.
UPDATE #2 (March 5, 2017): So I found this letter from Herman Sasse to Robert Preus on the Pseudepigraphus blog. Note Sasse’s extended critique of the Missouri Synod in regard to its embracing of YEC.
Why did these dissenters protest so vividly? It must be admitted that they believed to be fighting for the future of their church and of Lutheranism as a whole as they understood it. They have tried to grapple with a problem which remains a problem for Missouri. It was not only the freedom of the Gospel for which the conservatives are fighting, but the Gospel in the hard shell of a theology which is time-conditioned and therefore cannot be regarded as a theologiaperennis. This limitation became obvious at the dialog held at Bad Boll between Missourians and German theologians. One of the lectures given by a professor of St. Louis began with words: “Als der liebe Gott vor 6000 Jahren die Welt schuf.” This was not only the beginning of a dialog, it was also its end. What is the source of the doctrine that the world was created in 4000 (or to correct this figure from the chronology of the New Testament, 4004 B.C.? It is not the doctrine of Holy Scripture, for nobody has ever been able to find it— directly or indirectly— in the Bible, perhaps by adding the historical figures found in Genesis. It belongs to the traditions of the church which is contradicted by other traditions. The Jews, e.g., count the years from the time of creation, but it differs from the Christian eras (the Eastern Church had always other figures differing from the [page 6 »] era of Dionysius Exiguus). The learned Jewish rabbis knew that the Bible does not answer the question of the time of creation. So the Jewish era was made in the 4th century A.D. on the basis of astronomical calculations. Why had one to know the time of the creation? It was the desire to have a means to date historical events. The origin of the various eras lies in the Hellenistic civilisation which produced eras such as the Seleucidian. In Rome, Varro followed with the era ab urbe condita. The Greeks had their Olympiades. Islam developed later the era from the Hegra. The Christian era was ab incarnatione Domini. It took centuries until it replaced other means of determining the time of historical events. In Russia it was introduced as late as in the 18th century. Why was the era from the creation of the world so important? It allowed to determine historical dates in the time before Christ. This was the reason why the Reformers made their account, Melanchthon deviating from Luther and accepted the Luther between the 1st and the Rest of Luther’s work (Wittenberg). For the splendid idea that one could count the years also backwards, “B.C.” was invented only by the humanists of the 16th century. When Luther who was always interested in history needed an era from the creation he wrote his Supputatio annorum mundi first for his private use, later he published it at the request of friends. Here we find the year 4004 B.C. From where has he this? The motto of the little book reveals this. The Prophet Elijah said that the world will last 6000 years, to be followed by the millennium. According to the statement that one day is like a thousand years the six days of creation seemed to indicate the figure 6000. But where is this alleged saying of Elijah to be found? Of course, not in the Bible. It comes from the Talmud. An old rabbinic tradition has survived in the Church. So still in our days, one of the old scholars of Missouri, Prof. Rehwinkel has published a little book The Age of the Earth (it appeared first in Adelaide where the author was a guest lecturer at Concordia Seminary in 1965, later at Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis). Rehwinkel does not take in account Luther, but relies mainly on a “monumental work” of an unknown English clergyman and on the famous chronology of Bishop Ussher (around 1600) which has gained a sort of canonical dignity in the English speaking world (his figures appear even in Bible editions). Rehwinkel tries to improve Ussher’s figures on the basis of the Septuagint and arrives at the “most likely” date 5556 B.C. He concludes this investigation with a triumphant Verbum Dei Manet in Aeternum, after he has shown— in Australia he proclaimed that even to our congregations— that any basic doubt concerning this Biblical chronology would endanger our faith in Jesus Christ.
If the forty scholars of “Seminex” had taken up such issues and dared to criticize publicly this type of old fashioned theology, replacing it with a better Biblical theology, they would have deserved the gratitude of every Lutheran for whom the old Bishop Usher is not an authority….
If Missouri has now to rethink its theology one of the first tasks will be to reexamine the philosophical presuppositions of your traditional theology. This is [page 12 »] especially true of the problem of the Inspiration and Inerrancy of Holy Scripture. Your discussion of the doctrine of our orthodox fathers on these problems should open up the doors to a fresh approach to this problem which is of greatest concern to all Christian churches and which may be the basic question underlying the troubles of your church….
Why was historical research necessary? Because the Bible as human work is human literature. It would cease to be the true Word of God if it were not God’s Word in the form of human literature. To understand this then is the necessary presupposition for the understanding of the Bible as God’s Word. A strange riddle pervades the whole Bible which no theologian has been able to solve. Why is it that almost every important event in the history of salvation is told not once, but twice or [page 22 »] even more often: the conversion of Paul is told three times. In the case of the Gospel we have even a fourfold strand. Why is it that these doublets are not merely simple repetitions, but that they vary from or even contradict each other? Why have we two Decalogs, two Lord’s Prayers, two baptismal formulas etc.? Already the first church has wondered why we have four gospels and not only one. Harmonies have been attempted, but without success. The Church of Syria replaced the four “separated” ones by Tatian’s Diatessaron. Is it accidental that just this church became heretical until it returned to the four? Augustine wrote his famous harmony De consensu evangelistarum which is, despite all [the] acumen he displayed, perhaps his weakest book. He tried to harmonize everything. Since his Bible was in Latin he had the task even to harmonize the Greek Bible with the Latin translation from Hebrew. According to the Greek version Jona preached at Niniveh for forty years, according to the Hebrew three. He has to harmonize this contradiction by way of allegorizing. The time of the Reformation was confronted with a similar tasks. Flacius, whose hermeneutics is rightly praised by Dilthey, developed the principle that if a certain event is told three times and in different ways it must have occurred three times. So the daughter of Jairus must have been raised from the death three times. Poor girl and poor parents. In what frame of mind must they have been when the miracle occurred for the third time. What kind of a Saviour must Jesus be if he has no other way to save the beloved dogma of “inerrancy”.
Read the whole thing. Could Sasse be ordained in the Missouri Synod today? I sincerely doubt it. Here is the great irony: to be a truly “confessional” Lutheran, one must be prepared to pay homage to Ken Ham, a fundamentalist.
What no one will admit is that the silliness highlighted by Sasse is more likely to propel a new generation of Lutherans out the door than is a reconsideration of the doctrine of inerrancy as currently taught, a prospect, it is feared, that entails a liberalizing and de-Lutheranizing of the entire synod. I believe this is what is called the fallacy of the false dilemma.