Talking Points about Doctrinal Authority in the LCMS

By Dr. Matthew Becker

Next summer will mark the fortieth anniversary of the adoption of a controversial and divisive document at the 1973 Convention of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” appeared in 1972 and was adopted by a slim majority of LCMS convention delegates a year later.

When “A Statement…” was published, many synod members found it deeply flawed. A few wrote public articles that criticized it. When it was adopted by convention resolution, people throughout the synod lamented. Hundreds of LCMS clergy and congregations registered their formal dissent to it. Many thousands more simply dismissed it or ignored it. Of course those in agreement with the synod president at the time, Dr. J. A. O. Preus, welcomed the document and its implementation throughout the synod. Their chief target was the so-called “faculty majority” at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, forty of forty-five faculty members, many of which had been teaching at the seminary for decades (e.g., Richard Caemmerer, Arthur Carl Piepkorn). Those forty were deemed “false teachers not to be tolerated in the church of God.” That was the verdict rendered by the same slim majority of delegates at that ’73 convention that had earlier adopted “A Statement…” As a result of the “Preusian” implementation of those specific convention resolutions, the forty faculty members and many dozens of other synodical workers eventually lost their official synodical positions. The forty–and the seminarians who remained loyal to them–continued to be Concordia Seminary, but they did so “in exile.” Later, they were forced to change their name to “Christ Seminary–Seminex.”

While “A Statement…” has been “on the law books,” so to speak, since ’73, people have not drawn much critical attention to it after the Seminex “trouble-makers” and their supporters–some 200,000 people–had left the synod in the mid-1970s and formed a new church body. A lot of people avoided the document because it simply brought back painful memories of the events that led ultimately to schism in the synod. Other people who remained in the synod after the 1970s refrained from voicing their theological concerns about the contents of the document, perhaps out of fear that if their reservations became known they too might lose their positions. Surely some thought to themselves, “I best keep my head down and just focus on the specific ministry that is before me. I won’t rock the boat.” Then, too, why publicly discuss a controversial document if it appears that a majority within the synod take its teachings for granted and do not give them a further thought? Why stir up trouble by criticizing an accepted piece of synodical legislation? (And “legislation” is the right word.) Certainly many 1000s saw no need to discuss the document after ’73, since they fully agreed with its contents and the implementation of the convention legislation.

I do not remember discussing “A Statement…” in any of my classes when I was a student at the institution that was formed in the wake of Seminex on the grounds of the old Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (1984-88). I read the document, but I also read articles by synod members who had criticized it. The document and its contents did not surface in the two oral theological examinations I undertook with seminary faculty in advance of my authorization for ordination (1988, 1989). I suspect that many LCMS laity today are unfamiliar with the document. I wonder how many LCMS pastors have actually studied it carefully.

Despite the lack of attention given to it by most synod members today, “A Statement…” still shows up in some synodical settings. It is available on the synod’s web page as “an official doctrinal statement” of the synod. As such, it is simply taken for granted. Some have continued to use it coercively against other synod members. For example, reference to it has been made in the course of official proceedings against me for allegedly teaching false doctrine, but no discussion of the document’s contents has occurred. Instead, those who have used the document in this way treat “A Statement…” as if its adoption by that slim majority in ’73 has settled the pertinent doctrinal issues for all time.

In preparation for my meeting with several members of the synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) last year (2012), to discuss my formal dissent against the synod’s insistence on “six-day creationism” and its insistence that women cannot be ordained to serve as pastors, I was invited to re-read “A Statement…” and to identify a number of “talking points” that could be discussed with those CTCR members. What follows here is a summary of those talking points. What better way to observe this fortieth anniversary of “A Statement…” than to take it seriously and to engage it critically?

I. Preliminary Comments about Doctrinal Authority in the History of Christianity

The problem of doctrinal authority under God is at least as old as the theological conflicts within ancient Israel. Jesus himself was critical of the teaching authority of Jewish scribes and Pharisees, and he disagreed with them and the Sadducees about specific interpretations and applications of the Hebrew Scriptures. While criticism and abrogation of the Mosaic law are already evident in the Hebrew Scriptures (compare Dt. 23:1-8 with Is. 56:3-8), the authority of Jesus to interpret and even set aside the requirements of the law is the central indication that the law would have a subordinate authority for his followers, both Jewish and Gentile (compare John 7:53ff with Deut. 22, or Mark 7 with the food laws in the Torah).

The apostles Paul and John taught that the Old Testament (OT) law has now been set aside for Gentile followers of Christ. Paul taught that one does not sin by working on the Sabbath, that circumcision is unnecessary, and that one can eat any food whatsoever without sinning, even though the OT law clearly states that (most) work on the Sabbath is unlawful, that circumcision is a necessity of the Abrahamic covenant for all future generations, and that some foods are unclean. By faith in Christ one is “no longer under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:15). “You have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:4). “We have been discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6). Christ is “the end of the law, that everyone who believes may be justified” (Rom. 10:4). “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the law” (Gal. 3:25). Christ has “abolished [abrogated, destroyed] the law of commandments and ordinances in his flesh” (Eph. 2:15). Paul’s argument with his opponents was in part an argument about the doctrinal authority of the Hebrew Scriptures. (Other New Testament [NT] passages about the law [see for example James 2:22-25 and possibly First Timothy 1:8-10] conflict with the position of Paul and John.)

That Paul’s position could lead to heresy is clear from subsequent developments in the second and third centuries. Marcion considered himself a disciple of Paul. As such, he defended his dogmatic decision to reject the OT in its entirety and to insist on a sharp separation of the law from the gospel. The historical development of the NT canon, which was furthered by Marcion’s heretical narrow selection of a NT canon, was also marked by disagreements about what constituted false teaching. Specific judgments had to be made about which Christian documents would be authoritative within local Christian churches and which would be questioned, marginalized, and even outright rejected. Would the OT be included in the Christian canon? Against Marcion, mainstream theologians (like Irenaeus) argued that the OT is Christian Scripture. Thankfully other mainstream Christian leaders affirmed this position as well. Nevertheless, a canonical list that corresponds exactly to the 27 NT writings in most post-5th-century Bibles was not formally articulated until the fourth century and then only in Egypt. Many canons from the first 400 years of the Christian communities differ from that list. Some are larger (such as the oldest known Bible that also contains the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas [and some of the OT Apocrypha]), others as small as Marcion’s (an edited version of Luke and several letters of Paul). Gradually orthodox and catholic communities limited the NT canon to the 27 documents in most Bibles today, but questions and concerns persisted about some of the writings, the so-called “antilegomena” (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation).

Throughout the history of the Christian church, doctrinal positions have been asserted, articulated, and defended by bishops and councils. The authority of the bishop of Rome to articulate orthodox doctrine has been disputed since at least the fifth century, especially among eastern bishops, but there did develop the notion that decisions of Roman bishops were beyond reconsideration. Eventually papal authority was asserted over the whole church on earth. This claim was a major issue of conflict between eastern and western Christians and it directly contributed to the schism of the eleventh century. The patriarch of Constantinople and the bishop of Rome mutually excommunicated each other, although ecumenical work in the twentieth century led to the lifting of these historic decisions.

The history of western Christianity can be written as a history of conflict over doctrinal authority. It wasn’t only the sixteenth century that witnessed the sharpening (or muddling) of this issue. A century earlier doctrinal conflict over papal authority led to schism in the west and to the near simultaneous crowning of three different popes, each of whom claimed to be the sole legitimate ecclesiastical authority over the whole church on earth. That major crisis in authority was only resolved at the Council of Constance, the same council that burned John Hus.

In part the presence of conciliar and papal errors and contradictions in the doctrinal history of western Catholicism led Martin Luther to develop his critical Scriptural principle. Luther sharpened that principle further as his conflict with papal authority intensified. His debate with Eck led him to reject the traditional western catholic view that the authority of the church to define catholic doctrine resides in the papal office and, by extension, the official hierarchy of bishops, and that this hierarchy is necessary to teach and defend catholic doctrine. Against Luther Rome asserted its authority to be the only means for establishing the truth of catholic doctrine against the false teaching of university professors like Luther.

The indulgence controversy revealed to Luther that the subordination of Holy Scripture to the teaching authority of the church (and ultimately to the pope) had actually led to the incarceration of the Bible under church authority. The institutional church cannot be the Lord over the Scriptures; only Christ fills that spot. This principle was also stated in his famous reply at the Diet of Worms (1521):

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by plain reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.1

While many have accused Luther of paving the way for an approach to Scripture that places the rational individual above the church and often isolates the individual from both the history of biblical interpretation and the development of the church’s doctrinal teachings through ecumenical councils, Luther stressed the need to study Scripture in the context of the church’s liturgical life, centering on the proclamation of law and gospel and the administration of the sacraments in accord with the gospel, and in view of the authentic doctrinal traditions of the church that are clearly grounded in the central prophetic and apostolic Scriptures. One should underscore that he did not turn off his brain in the process of such interpreting.

But how does one determine what is authentic (and thus truly catholic and orthodox) from what is inauthentic in the doctrinal traditions of the church? Was not Luther making an individualistic decision when he accepted some dogmatic decisions (on the Trinity and the person of Christ) and rejected others (most of the decisions of the First Lateran Council and subsequent councils and much of canon law)? Did he not also make individualistic decisions in his biblical prefaces when he acknowledged that the authority of Paul and John is more central and superior than that of the so-called “antilegomena” writings in the NT (especially James and Hebrews, but also Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation) and even some of the homologoumena (the synoptic gospels, the writings that today are called “the pastoral letters”)? Had Luther not decided in the privacy of his cell how the gospel would be defined, which definition he then applied to the church’s traditions and practices, and even to the OT and NT writings? Luther himself was aware of this criticism and it troubled him. After much prayer and thinking, his chief response was to assert that the clear teachings of Scripture gave rise to the doctrinal content of the church’s teaching about God and Christ. Some NT texts are clearer in their presentation of the gospel than others. It is as simple as that. Luther found no need to criticize or even question the dogmatic decisions of the ecumenical councils that had defined the dogmas of the Trinity and the Person of Christ because these decisions were an authentic, truly catholic articulation of Scriptural teaching. And he certainly did not exclude the OT Apocrypha or the NT antilegomena from his German translation (though he did relegate the latter to the very back of the book, on unnumbered pages, and he didn’t list them in the table of contents). His was a conservative Reformation in that whatever in church tradition does not contradict or displace the one gospel of faith alone in Christ alone may be welcomed, even if it does not have explicit support within Holy Scripture. Luther’s acceptance of the western catholic position on the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary would be one example of this, as would his continued use of stained-glass windows, statues, crucifixes, candles, and other liturgical objects. The Augsburg Confession takes an even more radical position when it states that agreement in the gospel and in the proper administration of the sacraments according to the gospel is sufficient (satis est) for true doctrinal unity in the church. Melanchthon’s signature at the end of the so-called Smalcald Articles indicates the length to which he was prepared to go vis-à-vis papal authority (“by human right”), as long as the pope would “allow the gospel.”

Over against the “Lutherans” the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) asserted its sole right to interpret Scripture authoritatively through its traditions (canon law) and teaching office. At Trent it not only established the authority of church tradition alongside of Scripture but for the first time in the history of the western church a council defined the biblical canon to be coterminous with the contents of the Latin Vulgate. While the Calvinist churches also defined their biblical canon (unilaterally excluding the OT Apocrypha), the churches of the Augsburg Confession refused to take that step and insisted that the real issue is always properly distinguishing the biblical law from the biblical gospel. No church or sect, neither the Roman one nor any other, is in a position to define the canon. For this reason, too, as is well known, the evangelical-Lutheran Confessions contain no article on the Bible or its authority. The Formula of Concord merely underscores that “the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teaching and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments alone” (FC Epitome, Preface, 1). The Formula does not identify those writings nor does it clarify their attributes or the nature of their authority. More helpful for understanding that authority is the use to which the Scriptures are put in Apology IV, to sharpen the distinction between the law and the gospel in service to faith in Christ. Only later did some Lutheran theologians seek to counter the development of an infallible teaching office in the Roman Church by developing specific attributes for Holy Scripture and by dwelling at length on what it means to say that Holy Scripture is “the inspired word of God.”2

The church has no right to coin new doctrines, not even when they concern the authority of Holy Scripture. The church’s doctrinal authority resides solely in its responsibility to set forth the evangelical sense of the prophetic and apostolic words in Scripture. On occasion, too, Luther acknowledged that not everything in the Scriptures, not even everything that the apostles taught, is of binding and normative authority for contemporary Christians. That position, too, which is reflected in the twenty-eighth article of the Augsburg Confession, has surely contributed to further disagreements among latter-day Christians about what is and is not normative in the NT.

If the excommunication of Luther and the complex development of Protestant communities and their disagreements about biblical interpretation further divided the western catholic church and led to new arguments about the nature of doctrinal authority in the church, the problem of doctrinal authority was complicated even more so by the development of modern critical methods for investigating the Scriptures and by the rise of the modern sciences, whose findings conflicted with literal readings of the Bible. These developments undoubtedly contributed to the full articulation of papal authority in the RCC (culminating with its doctrine of papal infallibility) and to the full articulation of biblical authority among conservative Protestants (culminating with varying definitions of biblical inerrancy). Nevertheless, even in churches that developed these innovative positions about doctrinal authority, disagreements about the extent of that authority and about specific matters of biblical interpretation have persisted. For example, even though seventeenth-century Reformed and Lutheran theologians agreed on specific attributes of Holy Scripture, they came to very different doctrinal conclusions about the Lord’s Supper and the doctrine of election.

A strong case can be made that conservative responses within the RCC to the introduction of historical-critical tools for biblical investigation (after 1943) and toward the cautious introduction of “modernist” theological positions before, during, and shortly after the Second Vatican Council parallel responses to similar introductions within Protestant churches (such as the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod [after the 1950s]). Ironically, the common use of modern tools of biblical scholarship and critical-historical scholarship on the development of doctrine in the western catholic church by post-WWII Catholic and Protestant theologians has led to greater convergence in doctrinal areas that had earlier divided western Christians.3

The creation of “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” (1972) [hereafter abbreviated as ASSCP] and its adoption at the 1973 convention of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) have to be viewed in the context of these larger developments and arguments about doctrinal authority within modern Christendom. Just as the RCC attempted to stem the tide of modernism with its conciliar decision about papal infallibility in 1870, so the LCMS has attempted to do the same through its synodical decision in 1973 about biblical infallibility and inerrancy. Both of these developments are deeply flawed.

II. The Synod’s Doctrinal Basis

The doctrinal position of the Christian Church is established neither by the papal office nor by church council or synod convention. Church doctrine is established solely by the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures. For evangelical Christians in the western catholic church, the normative content of church doctrine is summarized (but not established) by the evangelical-Lutheran Confessions. While a given church body, such as the LCMS, is certainly free to take public votes on what a majority might think about a given doctrinal issue, that majority vote does not establish church doctrine. The fact that there was a significant minority vote in 1973 against the adoption of ASSCP needs to be taken into account when appreciating the relative authority of that document.

To make synod statements and resolutions the norm for what constitutes “the Synod’s doctrinal position” is to base Christian doctrine on an all-too-human, wobbly foundation. It is to make doctrine by means of majority voting. More importantly, the synod’s own constitution forbids using statements and resolutions in this manner. The passage of Resolution 3-9 by the 1959 San Francisco Convention, which sought to make the 1930 LCMS Brief Statement and all other doctrinal statements and resolutions adopted by the synod “as a true exposition of Holy Scripture” as “public doctrine (publica doctrina),” was declared unconstitutional by Resolution 6-01 of the 1962 Cleveland Convention, since the earlier resolution “had the effect of amending the confessional basis of the Constitution of the Synod without following the procedure required by Article XIV of the Constitution.” That 1962 resolution is still on the books and has not been repealed.

Not only has the synod changed its collective understanding and application of the Scriptures over time, but synods can err (as can popes and councils and theologians), as Dr. Luther acknowledged before the emperor and papal representatives, and as the 1962 synod convention declared of the 1959 synod convention. The Scriptures alone have the authority to correct and reform synods (and theologians within synods) when they err or when their teachings and practices could be improved. Appealing to the 1973 convention resolution on ASSCP, as if that appeal settles the issue of Scriptural authority and interpretation for all time in the life of the LCMS, seems to make the synod into an infallible norm for the Scriptures, rather than the other way around. The LCMS ought not to adopt the procedure of the RCC that Luther himself decried in his debate with Eck. We ought to heed the judgment of the 1962 synod convention about 1959 Resolution 3-09, which judgment we can also apply to subsequent synod resolutions that have essentially made the same error as the 1959 resolution.

The “walking together” of synodical members is to be done solely on the basis of their public vow to teach in accord with the doctrinal content of the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, as that content is defined and clarified in the Lutheran Confessions. Such “walking together” is done under the Scriptures, as members repeatedly engage one another on the basis of those Scriptures and in light of the articles of faith that have been clearly set forth in the evangelical-Lutheran Confessions. Normally matters of a theological nature are addressed by clergy in circuit gatherings, district gatherings, and synod gatherings, and through essays that are published in recognized synodical journals, however synod members have regularly contributed theological essays to journals and publications outside of official channels and these have often led to significant discussion among synod members and even to some changes in the synod through the decades.

Regarding theological matters that some synod members think are beyond the articles of faith or are not clearly settled in the Scriptures and the Confessions, there is the need for ongoing fraternal and sororal discussion on the same doctrinal basis. Members must return again and again to the confessional basis that is given in Article II of the synod’s constitution. For in her confession the evangelical-Lutheran church has recorded for all time what it believes, teaches, and confesses. Those who publicly teach that confession ought to be careful not to go beyond it or add to it. There is the need to recognize that there can be honest disagreement about matters that are not clearly settled in the Scriptures or the Confessions and that in view of such matters there is the need for charity, patience, and the other fruits of the Spirit. The only doctrinal authorities the members of the synod have are “Scripture and convincing” (C. F. W. Walther), not synodical convention resolutions, however helpful they might otherwise be at gauging the collective mind of the synod on a given issue (or showing, as in 1973, that the synod was deeply divided about the contents of ASCCP, since only about 58% of the delegates supported its adoption).4


1) Is it possible that the synod could set forth a theological or doctrinal error in its convention resolutions? Or is the synod truly infallible in its doctrinal resolutions?

2) Once the synod has passed a doctrinal resolution and even re-affirmed it later, does that mean the position of the resolution is forever beyond critical review?

3) Given the ordination vow that synod members make (oriented exclusively to Article II of the LCMS constitution) and given that the synod has deviated from several of its earlier doctrinal positions (for example, prayer fellowship), is there not a distinction between the historic evangelical-Lutheran Confessions and the doctrinal resolutions of a synod convention? Are the latter of the same doctrinal weight as the former?

4) If there is a difference in doctrinal weight, then is there not a distinction between dissenting from an article of faith that is given in the evangelical-Lutheran Confessions and dissenting from a synod doctrinal resolution?

5) If a member is convinced that a synodical convention has made an error in theology or doctrine, does he or she not have the responsibility to bring this error to the attention of the synod?

6) If the synod has committed a theological or doctrinal error, how would the synod ever come to rectify this error if the members of the synod are required to “honor and uphold” (“abide by, teach, and confess”) all synodical doctrinal resolutions until the synod changes its error? Is not the current process of dissent within the synod structured in such a way that dissenters have no opportunity for ongoing discussion of their theological concerns within the synod? Is it not the case that dissenters are encouraged to leave the synod rather than for the synod patiently and carefully to engage dissenters when they raise critical questions about synodical doctrinal resolutions? Where should such discussion take place, if it is even allowed, let alone encouraged, within the synod?

III. Questions about the Content of ASSCP

In order to keep this essay briefer than would otherwise be the case, the contents of ASSCP are not given here. To make sense of the following questions, the reader should have a copy of ASSCP before him or her. That document can be downloaded from the synod’s own webpage:

A. Article I: Christ as Savior and Lord

1) Do we know for certain “that all who die without faith in [Christ] are eternally damned”? Scripture teaches that those who do not believe in Christ are “judged” (krino; see John 3:17), but what is the Scriptural basis for confidently asserting that all who die without faith in Christ are eternally damned, especially when one takes into view the damnation/judgment of Christ on the cross, 1 Cor. 15:22-29 (“all”); Rom. 11:32, Acts 3:21 (“apokatastasis“), and similar passages (First Tim. 2:4)?

2) How can we be certain on the basis of Scripture that those who die in Christ “will enjoy a blissful relationship” with him during an “interim” between their death and his second coming? Do the Scriptures teach clearly about such an “interim?” Do not the Scriptures also use the metaphor of “sleep” to describe the condition of those who die in Christ? Was Dr. Luther wrong to appeal to this biblical metaphor when he wrote that the death of Christians is like an unconscious sleep? More importantly, how does Dr. Luther’s position undermine Christ as sole Lord and Savior? “By what theological principle is the Scriptural teaching of Christ as sole Savior and Lord through faith alone extended to validate pious speculations regarding the interim as necessary church dogma?”5

3) Does not the presence of the Rahnerian phrase “anonymous Christians” reveal the time-bound character of ASSCP?

B. Article II: Law and Gospel

1) What is meant by the word “Law” here? Surely not the entirety of the Mosaic law or even the so-called Ten Commandments, since the ceremonial and Sabbath laws have been set aside through the work of Christ. Is “Law” identical to every command in the Scriptures, including even those apostolic commands about blood and veils that the Augsburg Confession says are no longer binding on sixteenth-century German Christians (and presumably no longer binding for 21st-c. American Christians)?

2) Because of the abrogation of the Mosaic law through Christ, can the Christian truly know “the immutable will of God” apart from the gospel? In other words, do not the teaching and actions of Christ expose the law for what it is in its natural, historical, and especially theological dimensions? Does not the gospel alone make clear the distinction between “the immutable will of God” and the transitory nature of at least some of the biblical commands? Does not the gospel also make clear the distinction between the working of “the natural law” within a given historical and cultural setting and the theological use of the law, namely, to drive people to Christ? Do not these distinctions also underscore the true spirit of the law of God as one of love, namely, “the law of Christ?” Is it not the case that “God’s law is correctly understood only when we know the gospel,” that is, the work of Christ? And in this sense the gospel is indeed “a norm or standard for the Christian life,” since it makes clear the above distinctions. While, to be sure, the gospel does not impose “a new law upon the Christian,” it does have implications for understanding the subordinate authority of the Mosaic law, its abrogation in the gospel, and the nature of the Christian life as one of “faith active in love.”

3) Does the divine law ever have merely a neutral, instructional function in the life of the Christian, as if the Christian is not also a mortal sinner and ever under the accusing function of the law? Because ASSCP seems to understand the “law of God” as mere legislation and divine commands, does it not come to a moralistic understanding of the law that finally minimizes both the wrath of God and the gospel of Christ? The Formula of Concord makes clear that the desires of the sinful flesh cling to the reborn children of God and that the divine law thus always accuses them, even when it is teaching, admonishing, warning, and threatening them (FC SD VI). The law’s place in the life of the Christian is not to give mere information about how to lead a moral and God-pleasing life, as if that were possible under the law, but to expose the Christian as a sinner (the so-called “theological use”). Article IV of the FC makes clear that Christians remain sinners unto death and that as such they tend to devise their own schemes for gaining God’s favor through their moral behavior. Article VI underscores that the preaching of the law is to be done toward Christians, too, since their good works are still always “imperfect and impure.” While the law does have an informatory effect (through the social-political use of the law), an effect that under the gospel/Holy Spirit is not coercive but free, that free effect is always itself ideal and never a complete reality because Christians are never perfectly free of sin, and therefore always live, even as believers, bound to the first two uses of the law. This is the main point of FC VI, which acknowledges that the law is never merely or purely a neutral, informative guide (as in some forms of Calvinist theology). It is always an accusatory, juridical power that finally puts one to death. There’s no cozying up to the law of God! It always accuses all people, Christian and non-Christian alike, since all have fallen short and are “captive to the law of sin” (Rom. 7:23). The law of God always aims to expose unbelief, the “root and fountainhead of all culpable sin” (FC SD V). The law always creates a radically bad situation for sinners under the wrath of God from which only faith in the good message about Jesus brings relief. Only under the gospel are any human works pleasing to God, since the gospel alone rectifies the sinner’s situation under the law.

4) Is it not the case that apostolic admonition (paraklesis) as grounded in the gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, and shaped by Christ’s promises through them–is distinct from the divine law? The apostolic message includes both indicative statements of gospel and imperative statements that are grounded in the indicative (but cannot be strictly identified with “law”). Pauline paraklesis is especially grounded in Baptism, in which and through which the sinner is given over to Christ, crucified with Christ, died and buried, and has become a new creature. Because the sinner has died with Christ and has been raised to new life, the sinner is called to live a life worthy of the gospel. Gospel and paraklesis stand with each other, not over against each other like promise and law or like law and gospel.

C. Article III: Mission of the Church

1) As commendable as this article is, does it not omit several important emphases that ought to be made with respect to the mission of the church in relation to specific settings, for example, within academic communities (wherein one must take into account truth and knowledge from all scholarly disciplines)? Or in relation to young people who are learning scientific knowledge about God’s creation?

2) Is not the preaching of the law, in contrast to the preaching of the gospel, also an essential aspect of the church’s mission? Why does this article seemingly subsume the preaching of the law under the preaching of the gospel?

3) The article does not address the important distinction between the mission of the church in relation to the doctrine of creation (where knowledge of creation by means of human sensing and reasoning has its own integrity [SC, The Creed, article one]) and the doctrine of redemption (where knowledge of Christ our savior is solely by means of the preaching of the gospel). Are there not some actions that Christians ought to take toward creation that are not directly related to the witness of the gospel? Is there not an important distinction between “faith” and “love,” even if Christian faith is to be “active in love?”

D. Article IV: Holy Scripture

The Inspiration of Scripture

1) What is meant by the word “Scripture” here? It appears to be a reference to “the Bible.” Which “Bible?” Which biblical books? The Canon of Trent? Luther’s Bible, which included the Apocrypha and the antilegomena (in the back on unnumbered pages and unlisted in the table of contents)? Or the typical Reformed Bible that omits the OT Apocrypha and makes no distinction between the homologoumena and the antilegomena?

2) Is there a single verse or set of verses in whichever Bible is being referenced here that makes reference to the contents of the Christian Bible as a whole? Is it not the case that the first person to refer to the writings of the Old Testament and the New Testament collectively as “the Bible” was Chrysostom, who lived in the fourth century? While the prophetic and apostolic writings certainly contain passages that refer to “the word of the LORD” and that make reference to “God-breathed” writings (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21), can anyone be absolutely certain which writings are being referred to here? Or what the phrase “pasa graphe theopneustos” really means? Because of the presence of the OT Apocrypha and the NT antilegomena within most Lutheran Bibles, the application of the above two biblical passages to the entire Bible is problematic. At best 2 Tim. 3:16 refers to the Septuagint (which included the OT Apocrypha), but we cannot be certain of this. Because there are legitimate concerns about the canonical character of some OT and NT biblical writings, the traditional Protestant biblical canon as such cannot serve as the “rule and guiding principle” of Christian theology, nor is the totality of this canon “the pure, clear fountain of Israel” (FC SD, Preface, 3), as Martin Luther’s prefaces to the biblical books also make clear (see LW 35:235ff.). Not every biblical book or biblical passage is of equal canonical, theological weight.

All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach and inculcate [treiben] Christ.  And that is the true test by which to judge all books, when we see whether or not they inculcate Christ.  For all the Scriptures show us Christ, Romans 3; and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ, 1 Corinthians 2. Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching.  Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it.6

If necessary, for the sake of the gospel, Christ and Scripture can even be pitted against each other.  “Scripture is to be understood, not against, but for Christ: either it must be referred to him, or else it must not be held to be true Scripture….  If my opponents have urged Scripture against Christ, we urge Christ against Scripture.”7 “You urge the slave, that is, Scripture—and only in parts…  I urge the Lord, who is King of Scripture.”8 “Thus if the text of Scripture is opposed to Luther’s gospel-centered interpretation of Scripture, his interpretation becomes gospel-centered criticism of Scripture….  Sacred Scripture is its own critic.”9

3) How is the LCMS theologian to make use of Luther’s prefaces to the biblical books, wherein Luther plainly acknowledges the historic and central distinction between the homologoumena and the antilegomena? Does this distinction have any importance for understanding biblical authority today? Moreover, does the historical development of differing biblical canons have any implication for one’s understanding of the authority of the Bible in its totality? Finally, do the varied contents and the diversity of genres and literary forms within the biblical writings, as well as the differing degrees of usage of the biblical books within the Christian communities over the centuries, have any implication for understanding biblical authority? Is it not the case that some biblical books and sections within biblical books are more central and significant, and others less so? To assert that the antilegomena are canonical cannot be made binding teaching for the church. The question about the canonical status of these writings is just as open today as it was in the second and third centuries.

4) Despite these important qualifications and limitations on the Bible’s authority as a whole, the book that Lutheran Christians call “the Bible” (inclusive of the OT Apocrypha and NT antilegomena, as in Luther’s translation) is treasured by them as the principal source of faith and the only clear witness to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. The authority of the Bible resides in its normative witness to the law of God, to the gospel of Jesus the Christ as Savior, and to the Spirit’s ongoing use of the messages of law and gospel that summon individuals to repent of their sin and to trust solely in Christ. These biblical words of law and gospel come from beyond human beings; they do not originate with human beings nor result from human thoughts, wills, or imaginations. They come from God. Despite the fact that the biblical writings are humanly conditioned by the time and circumstances in which they were first spoken, transmitted, and written down, Christian faith does not receive these prophetic and apostolic words “as the word of human beings, but as God’s word” (1 Thess. 2:13; cf. Gal. 1:11), a word that authenticates itself as it strikes the heart of each person in judgment and grace. It is a powerful word that leads people to change their understandings of themselves, of the world, and of God. “The Bible must therefore be treated with the devotedness, thoroughness and conscientiousness that accord with its authority, that is, its power to originate and further the coming of the Word of God and faith.”10 ASSCP would have been on more solid theological ground had its first paragraph been something along these lines. Despite the efforts of Protestant theologians in the seventeenth and eighteenth century to ground the authority of the Bible in a theory of the divine inspiration of its entire contents (which contents?), the authority of Scripture is grounded solely in its witness to law and gospel and the work of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit to use the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures as a means of God’s grace. Christians revere the Bible because of their reverence for Christ and the fact that he is the central content of the entire Scriptures. For confessional Lutherans the doctrine of Scripture begins with the affirmation that the proper distinction between the law and the gospel is “an especially brilliant light which serves the purpose that the word of God may be rightly divided and the writings of the holy prophets and apostles may be explained and understood properly” (FC SD V).

5) Whereas most Lutheran and Reformed theologians since the sixteenth century have spoken about specific attributes of the Bible as whole, is it not really more accurate to apply these traditional attributes only to the homologoumena apostolic writings of the NT and then, by extension, to the OT prophetic writings, which are interpreted by the apostolic writings of the NT?11 In relation to the purpose of these homologoumena writings, their perfection resides in their sufficiency: they contain everything one needs to know in order to become knowledgeable of the nature and will of God, of the world as God’s creation, of human beings as sinful creatures of God who have been redeemed by Christ Jesus, and of the new creation that has dawned in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In other words, these apostolic and prophetic writings alone are able to instruct a person in everything necessary for salvation and of the blessed life. “For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets, who wrote the canonical books….”12 . In this sense, one may speak of the apostolic and prophetic writings as “the pure fount” from which flow all the articles of faith that together constitute the doctrinal content of the faith. The truly apostolic norm allowed Luther and others to test the book of James and the other antilegomena and OT Apocrypha. Likewise, the attribute of “necessity” also attaches only to the homologoumena apostolic and prophetic writings, which are able to refute the errors of human beings with respect to the revealed truth of the gospel and the articles of faith that serve as corollaries to the gospel. “If we consider how slippery is the lapse of man’s mind into forgetfulness of God, how great his proclivity for every kind of error, how great his passion for fashioning simultaneously new and fictitious religions, it will be easily revealed, how necessary such a sealing of heavenly doctrine has been, to prevent its extinction in oblivion, its disappearance in error or its corruption by man’s presumption.” 13 Finally, the homologoumena apostolic and prophetic writings are clear in their teachings about the essential content of the faith. In other words, the truth of the gospel is plainly and clearly revealed in these writings and may be understood by most everyone who pays careful attention to them. While the perspicuity of the apostolic and prophetic writings does not mean that everything within them is unambiguously clear or that one can avoid the need for careful exposition of their contents, it does mean that the basic and essential teachings of the faith within these writings are not opaque. Whatever obscure passages are found in Holy Scripture are to be understood theologically in the light of the unambiguously clear ones that serve as a guide to “the rule of faith and love.” This is the basis for the venerable hermeneutical principle, “Scripture interprets Scripture.”

6) If one must reject the position that “only those matters in Holy Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit which directly pertain to Jesus Christ and man’s salvation,” then did the Holy Spirit completely govern and guide (override?) the biblical prophets and apostles with respect to their historical, social, and cultural limitations and their linguistic particularities, or did the Spirit allow them more freedom to reflect their linguistic and cultural particularities? Did such inspiration do away with the human conditioning that leads to stylistic, linguistic, cultural, and even minor theological differences from one biblical writing to the next (and even within the same biblical writing)? How does one account for the seemingly human, historical, and cultural conditioning within the biblical writings? Do not all theories of the supposed verbal inspiration of the biblical writings flatten out the variety of expressions within the Bible and give them all an equal authority, as if the biblical assertion that “Nimrod was the first on earth to become a mighty warrior” (Gen. 10:8) is of the same theological value as the Johannine assertion, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life” (John 3:16)? Could it be that the Holy Ruach has favorite biblical passages? The gospel about Christ, which is attested in diverse ways within the Scriptures, is the key that unlocks the meaning of the whole of Scripture and allows its individual parts to be understood in relation to the gospel.

7) The idea of verbal inspiration, as it developed within seventeenth-century Protestantism, is also problematic because it suggests that unless one can first rationally demonstrate the divine inspiration and perfection of the (entire?) Bible, one cannot submit to the Scriptural word. But how can one ever prove or demonstrate a writing to be “divinely inspired,” especially when one considers that in the early church many writings that were purported to be “inspired” were in fact judged heretical or at least non-apostolic and non-canonical? Over against basing biblical authority on the idea of verbal inspiration, one needs to stress that Christian faith does not submit to the authority of the Bible because its divine authority has first been demonstrated, but because the power of the divine word, both law and gospel, authenticates itself again and again in the present through the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, which nevertheless remains always conditioned through human witnesses (prophets and apostles) who spoke and wrote in different settings over the course of many centuries and who used many differing types of speaking and writing to convey the word of the LORD.

The authority of Scripture is not formal but is highly material and is content driven. It is the voice of its author, who gives; who allows for astonishment, lament, and praise; who demands and fulfills. Scripture can in no wise be confirmed as having formal authority in advance, so that the content becomes important only as a secondary stage of the process. The text in its many forms–particularly in the law’s demand and the gospel’s promise–uses this material way of doing business to validate its authority.14

Moreover, the Bible did not fall out of heaven as a complete document. It emerged gradually over time and many human voices/hands were involved in its production and transmission. From one perspective, the Bible is in its entirety a collection of human documents. From another perspective, these diverse human writings are the means by which God continues to address human beings with his divine words of judgment and grace. In this sense, they reflect the humility and condescension of the living Word of God in Jesus himself, who also authoritatively addressed human beings. “These conditions under which the word of God exists cannot be improved or overcome by any kind of theories of inspiration, or by arguments that are designed to protect the Bible from its ‘humanity.’ Faith always discovers the revelation of God in ‘secret,’ in the human covering that hides it.”15

According to several important studies of the historical process of canonization, the “divine inspiration” of a document was not a factor in discerning the homologoumena.16 Rather, once discerned, the homologoumena were confessed to be the inspired word of God. The factors that were in play were the apostolic character of a document (it had to be written by an apostle or by an associate of an apostle for it to be included in a canon), the antiquity of a document (the older the better), the catholicity of a document (the more widely used in key catholic churches the better), and the orthodoxy of a document (it had to reflect the regula fidei that had been handed down orally by the apostles and their associates).

8) The following statement is unclear: “We reject… 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.” How then does one account for the differences, variations, additions, subtractions in the pericopal material among the four canonical gospels? Is it not the case that there was a period of oral transmission of apostolic traditions prior to the shaping of that material by individuals within the early church who developed written gospel narratives? While the gospel narratives present material that had been handed down through the oral testimony of ear- and eye-witnesses, the entirety of the written materials in the NT had its origin within the early Christian community. The author of Luke was not himself an eyewitness or a servant of the word but was dependent upon materials that had been “handed down” to him and others of his generation and that he had investigated (Luke 1:1-4). Could the Holy Spirit not have led each individual gospel editor/writer to produce the gospel that the Spirit wanted produced for the author’s/editor’s own situation and set of circumstances, a gospel that would reflect the editor’s own theological motifs and concerns, one that would in its own way fulfill the promise that the post-resurrection Spirit would guide the church into all the truth? To be sure, the four canonical gospels are not “fictions” or “imaginative inventions,” but neither is each a purely historical chronicle or mere archive. Clearly there are additions, subtractions, changes, and other differences in similar periscopes within a synopsis of the four gospels. Moreover, the gospels make use of many literary forms and styles, some of which might not present “actual facts” (e.g., the parables). The overall narrative shape of each gospel is unique in its details. Matthew has arranged and presented/edited his material in one way, Luke in another. While both follow Mark’s basic outline, the individual pericopes are different in details from one gospel writer to the next. And John’s material is almost entirely unique.

The Purpose of Scripture

There is no such thing as “a primary” purpose of Scripture, for the use of that term implies a “secondary” or even a “tertiary” purpose to Scripture. Jesus knows no such level of “purposes.” The sole purpose of the Scriptures is to make people wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”  (John 20:31). “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39). The Scriptures are “rightly used only when they are read from the perspective of justification by faith and the proper distinction between law and gospel” (emphasis added). The Scriptures are rightly used only when they are searched to find in them the gospel, namely, the life, the death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ “for me.” Certainly this “searching” also uncovers divine words of law and judgment, and these words have their rightful say about us sinners and even about Christ, who suffered on the cross as “the world’s greatest sinner” (Luther). Nevertheless, the law is to be rightly distinguished from the gospel so that the gospel receives its greatest clarity in contrast to the law and reveals how the gospel speaks a word against the divine law for the sake of faith in Christ alone. Unfortunately, most of ASSCP does not follow this basic hermeneutical principle and gets side-tracked on developing a narrow understanding of “divine inspiration” and applying that understanding to matters that go well beyond justification by faith and the proper distinction between law and gospel.

1) Does all Scripture really bear witness to Christ? While indeed Jesus taught that the Scriptures bear witness to him, ASSCP goes too far when it states unequivocally that “all Scripture bears witness to Jesus Christ.” The Scriptures contain many statements that do not refer to Jesus or to the gospel about him. Does every passage in the OT really bear witness to Jesus Christ?

2) Are all “matters recorded in the Bible” “historical” or “factual?” How does one determine the genre of a biblical story or pericope? For example, there are many “matters” that are recorded in the biblical books that are neither “historical” nor “factual” (such as the parables, poetic passages, personifications, fables, allegories, hyperbolic statements, symbolic imagery). What is meant by “historicity of events… recorded in the Scriptures?” Is not ASSCP itself assuming a very modern notion, namely, that “truth” must always be “factual” or “historical,” when in fact the ancient world freely acknowledged that much spiritual truth is symbolic and figurative and allegorical? There is here in ASSCP a too restrictive notion of “truth.” If one didn’t know better, one could accuse the author(s) of ASCCP of adopting a scientific, materialistic, empirical understanding of what constitutes “truth.” But the Scriptures themselves are quite free of this modern prejudice and “freely speak of spiritual reality in symbolic terms.”17 This is certainly the case with the stories in the first chapter of Genesis, but other biblical stories reflect the same perspective. For example, Martin Scharlemann (in the same essay) refers to 1 Cor. 10:4, where Paul makes use of a rabbinic legend to convey a significant divine truth.

3) “…we acknowledge that the recognition of the soteriological purpose of Scripture in no sense permits us to call into question or deny the historicity or factuality of matters recorded in the Bible.” The Bible records, in passing, as a matter of fact that the earth is founded on an immovable foundation or pillars, that the earth does not move, and that the sun moves around the earth. How are these factual matters that are recorded in Scripture related to the soteriological purpose of the Scriptures? If it can be shown that the earth is not founded on an immovable foundation or pillars, that the earth does in fact move, and that the sun does not move around the earth, is the soteriological purpose of Scripture called into question? Likewise, if it can be shown that the earth is a lot older than a straight-forward reading of the Biblical chronology would suggest and that species have evolved over a great distance of time (contrary to a literal reading of either creation story in Gen. 1-2), does this evidence deny or call into question the soteriological purpose of the Scripture?

4) Why must the list of stories in the fourth rejection all be acknowledged as such to be matters of historical fact? What is the (unstated) relevance of acknowledging these stories as “fact?” Do not all four of the rejections here imply a secondary purpose of Scripture, namely, to impart “facts?” And how are these “facts” related to the assertion of the apostle John, namely, that there is only one purpose of the Scriptures (John 20:31)? What difference does it make to our salvation from sin and death by faith in Jesus Christ, if the story of Adam and Eve is best understood figuratively, or if the Israelites came out of Egypt on wet ground, or if Moses’ lifting up of the bronze serpent can be understood both symbolically and as an historical event? “Am I really expected to hold that my salvation through Jesus Christ is somehow related to, perhaps even dependent upon, an unequivocal assertion that once there really was salvation through a brazen serpent for the Israelites in the wilderness? If [this] is so, then the historicity and factuality of all matters recorded in the Bible as a necessary tenet of faith antecedes any subsequent distinction between Law and Gospel.”18 Is the virgin birth of Jesus in and of itself necessary as an element in or presupposition of our salvation? It may well be, and I think it is, but its relation to the gospel is different from the issues in the other questions here. What if some of the miracles of Jesus are also meant to be understood figuratively? Is their “happenedness” the key issue or is not this issue, too, only significant in relation to John’s statement about the sole purpose of Scripture? Even the demons know historical facts. What they lack is faith in Christ. Thus, only the last question in this fourth rejection is directly significant to the one stated purpose of Holy Scripture, at least as that purpose is defined by the Scriptures themselves. Indeed, if Christ has not been raised from the dead, our faith in him is in vain. But thank and praise God, Christ has been raised from the dead and has granted us life and salvation in his name.

The Gospel and Holy Scripture

Aside from the problematic use of the pagan-Aristotelian philosophical categories of “material principle” and “formal principle,” neither of which is Scriptural or Confessional, there is much to commend in the first large paragraph of this section. In light of this section, there are some additional questions that arise:

1) Is it appropriate to imply (as in rejection #1) that “acceptance of the gospel” is “the heart and center of Christian faith and theology?” Does this rejection not imply that the heart of Christian faith is located within an individual’s “acceptance,” rather than in what Christ has accomplished in himself for the salvation of the world? To be sure, faith is the reception of the gospel promise, but is not the center of our faith “outside of ourselves,” in the promise about Christ?

2) Do not the Confessions teach that Holy Scripture is to be divided into law and gospel and that the proper interpretation of Scripture is always guided by this dueor proper distinction? Are any theological matters of doctrinal significance if they do not involve the proper distinction between the law and the gospel? Is it confessional to insist on the acceptance of any Scriptural statement as a matter of doctrine unless one is able to demonstrate how it relates to the proper distinction between law and gospel?19

The Authority of Scripture

1) Do the Scriptures have only God as their author?

2) Why does ASSCP continue to avoid discussing the authority of Scripture in the manner of the Lutheran Confessions, namely, in terms of the proper distinction between the law and the gospel? These two words of God, both normatively disclosed within the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, have two very different contents and two very different outcomes. The authority of the law is different from the authority of the gospel. If that were not the case, then Paul’s assertion about the power of the gospel to silence the law and its accusatory power would be false. The preaching of the apostles is aimed at the creation of faith in Christ on the basis of the gospel. The Scriptures have authority for the sake of this gospel.

3) Once again one must ask, what is meant by the term “Scripture” in this section? The Formula uses the more precise designation “the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments” (FC Epitome, Rule and Norm, 1), which leaves open the question about the OT Apocrypha and the NT antilegomena and it centers upon the “canon within the canon” in the homologoumena writings, namely, the proper distinction between law and gospel.

4) What is meant by the expression “the inspired and inerrant Word of God?” This expression is not found within any Scriptural writing. This expression is not found within the Lutheran Confessions. Dr. Luther did not use this expression. The expression is not found among Lutheran theologians prior to the nineteenth century. As Dr. Piepkorn and others have shown, the term “inerrant” is not useful in Christian theology, since it is misleading and must be qualified in all sorts of ways. Indeed, the term dies the death of a thousand qualifications. Theologians have rightly defined biblical authority differently, on the basis of more useful criteria (apostolicity, antiquity, catholicity, orthodoxy in accord with the regula fidei, the proper distinction between law and gospel). The Lutheran Confessions do not define the authority of Scripture on the basis of its inspired character. The authority of Scripture is grounded in its witness to the divine words of law and gospel. These divine words “cannot deceive” (LC IV, 57); they accomplish their respective purposes in service to faith in Christ.

The evangelical-Lutheran Confessions never identify the Bible per se as “the word of God.” Scripture itself indicates that the Word of God is not identical to written documents: “Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Ps. 119:89). “The word of the Lord abides forever” (1 Pet. 1:25). “The word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (Jn 1:14). In light of these and similar passages, the Word of God cannot be strictly and unconditionally identified with the Christian Bible per se, since the Bible will not last forever. Leaving aside the problem of the Apocrypha and the antilegomena, which raises legitimate questions about the content of the biblical canon, every prophetic and apostolic Scripture is a written witness to the eternal, incarnate Word of God, who is not in any way a book. The prophetic and apostolic Scriptures point away from themselves to God’s words of law and graceful promise, in service to faith in the living, incarnate Word. This Word of God alone is “the same yesterday, today, and even forever” (Heb. 13:8). The abiding Word of God that remains sure and certain is Christ. This Word does not lie or deceive. While that living Word is mediated through the Holy Scriptures, which testify to the Word, the original Scriptural texts are not identical to the Word. Bibles wear out, they do not last. They are not eternal.

Moreover, the person who wrote “God’s word cannot deceive” (LC, Baptism, 57) nevertheless acknowledged that the Bible, which he too held is not identical to God’s eternal Word, does in fact contain minor errors and contradictions. The writings of the prophets contain some errors of historical fact, since they were first spoken (in various places and times by individual prophets who were separated by time and space from other prophets) and only written down at a later time. If one compares the histories of the kings that are given in First and Second Kings with the histories of the same kings that are given in First and Second Chronicles there are many apparent errors of historical fact that come to light. Frequently the high numbers of those involved in biblical events are literal errors, imprecise, and must be understood as hyperbole (e.g., 600,000 people did not leave Egypt in the Exodus; Abijah did not slay 500,000 chosen men; “all Jerusalem” did not go out to hear John the Baptist; the number “40” does not usually mean “40”). Many of the reports about the same event in the canonical gospels conflict with each other and cannot be harmonized. For example, how many individuals did the women encounter when they came to the tomb of Jesus? One “angel” who is sitting on the stone, as in Matthew 28:2ff.? One “young man” who is not on the stone but inside the tomb, as in Mark 16:5? “Two men” who suddenly stood beside the women inside the tomb, as in Luke 24:4? In John’s account (20:1ff.), only Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and she encountered no angel or young man or young men. There is no way to harmonize these four individual accounts of the same event. Where did Peter deny Christ? John’s account cannot be squared with the accounts of the same event in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of Matthew (27:9) wrongly attributes a quotation to Jeremiah instead of Zechariah. The Gospel of Mark wrongly refers to Abiathar rather than Abimelech (2:26). The journey of Jesus described in Mark 7:31 is geographically impossible. James 2:24 seemingly contradicts the clear teaching of Paul that a person is justified by faith “apart from works” (Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:28; a teaching that is a consistent theme in the authentic letters of Paul). Hebrews 6:3 is contradicted by 1 John 1:9, which indicates that there is always an opportunity to repent of one’s sins and seek Christ’s forgiveness. From the perspective of modern cosmology, the Bible contains errant understandings of the physical universe. There is nothing in Scripture that teaches a heliocentric solar system and many passages that literally teach the immobility of the earth and several that teach the movement of the sun around the earth. The earth does not have four corners. The earth is not flat. It is not founded on pillars or an immovable foundation. There is nothing in Scripture that reflects a modern understanding of gravity or relativity or the evolution of species.

The doctrine of the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible also tends to level the biblical writings and to give them an equal importance. This “leveling” ends up turning the Bible into an absolute legal authority, whose commands and exhortations in their entirety are binding for all times and places. Not only does such a leveling downplay the distinction between the law and the gospel within the biblical writings, but it ignores the fact that some biblical passages of divine gospel “cross out” other biblical passages and open them up for alternative understandings and applications over time. Some biblical commands, for example, can no longer be understood and applied in the present as they were in the past because they presuppose a different social and political ordering from modern ones. The gospel has done away with many biblical laws. Even many apostolic commands within the NT no longer have the same meaning or application as they had in the first centuries of the church. Slavery has been abolished, food offered to idols may be eaten, as may food with blood in it, modern liberal democracy has done away with hierarchical understandings of political authority, women have the same equal standing and creaturely gifts before God as men, and so on. The ethical exhortations within the NT apostolic texts provide a pattern for contemporary reflection on how those exhortations might be understood and applied today in very different circumstances from the first-century church, but they cannot be viewed on the same level as the proclamation of the gospel and the promise of the new creation in and through the crucified and risen Christ, nor can they be directly applied to contemporary situations without careful attention to the historical and cultural distance that exists between them and those situations.

While one can certainly affirm the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures to be the only infallible rule of Christian faith and life, because they teach faithfully and with clarity the truth of the law and the truth of the gospel which God wanted recorded for the sake of creating and sustaining faith in Christ, the entirety of the Bible cannot serve as that infallible rule. If the Scriptures are not a perfectly consistent set of documents, at least with respect to matters of history, science, and geography, and even in some matters of theological emphasis and ethical exhortation, most Christians insist that their basic, overall message is clear and consistent: God judges sin and sinners, yet God loves and forgives sinners for Christ’s sake and will not let them go. In this respect, the Scriptures (at least the homologoumena) will not mislead one; they can be trusted to impart the truth of the gospel in a reliable manner.

Luther’s Christological principle provides a center for biblical interpretation that holds. Christ is the mathematical point of Holy Scripture. And because of his incarnation in a very specific time and place–also in relation to the preceding history of traditions within ancient Israel–we do not bring the ancient documents to us, but return to them to see them in the light of the times in which they were written and in light of their overall purpose. If we do this, “we shall discover that the question of inerrancy is quite out of keeping with the nature of biblical revelation.”20

5) Does not the definition of inerrancy in the Brief Statement, which is quoted here in ASSCP, make the Scriptures something less than what they propose to be? Such a notion of inerrancy as given in these two synod documents ignores that the biblical writers spoke and wrote in ancient, foreign languages to people of their time and according to their ancient worldview. Despite protests to the contrary, is it not the case that many synod pastors and laity understand “divine inspiration” as a kind of mechanical process whereby God took over the biblical writers and caused them to write down exactly what God wanted recorded, almost as if God’s Word was like air that blew through a flute or like water that flowed through a pipe? In that view, neither the flute nor the pipe contributed anything to the word or conditioned it in any way. Does not such a mechanical, trance-like understanding of inspiration completely ignore the historical condition of the biblical writers and the people of God in their historical situations, the fact that language was used differently in the ancient near-eastern world, that the cultures of that time and region had their unique literary forms and styles, and that these forms and styles are reflected in the biblical writings?

6) Do not the Scriptures themselves make a distinction between God’s revelation in and through his mighty acts in history and the record and interpretation of those mighty acts within the Scriptures? Jesus was raised from the dead long before the first written accounts of his resurrection were written down. The message of the gospel was proclaimed orally long before the written gospels were produced.

The Canonical Text of Scripture

See my comments and questions above about the distinction between the homologoumena and the antilegomena. The churches of the Augsburg Confession have never defined the limits of the canon, although theologians have been free to question the status of the Apocrypha and the antilegomena. The Lutheran Confessions do not repudiate Luther’s critical judgments about some biblical books. Luther’s prefaces to the biblical writings make clear that the interpretation and application of the Scriptures operate according to the normative, due distinction between the law and the gospel. This distinction is itself guided by the superior authority of the gospel concerning Jesus Christ. All authentic Scripture bears witness to Christ alone in service to faith alone in him. All authentic Scripture turns about Christ as its authentic center. He is its proper and central content and the gospel about him is its norm. This is often called “the canon within the canon,” since the gospel about Jesus Christ, in sharp distinction from the law, serves as the sole standard for the theological interpretation of Scripture. Thus all Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New, both the homolegoumena and the antilegomena, must be interpreted in relation to Jesus Christ and the gospel about him. The church is not in a position to define the canon, although the Pauline and Johannine writings (and First Peter, which is Pauline in character) have traditionally been understood to be the center of the canon. They set forth the “canon within the canon.”

1) By adopting ASSCP, has the synod followed the path of Rome and the Reformed by eliminating the distinction between the homologoumena and the antilegomena? Is it not the case that if a biblical document can be shown not to have met ancient criteria for canonicity (apostleship, antiquity, catholicity, orthodoxy)–leaving aside Luther’s central concern about the clarity of witness to the gospel–that its status can rightly be questioned? Do not the homologoumena have a superior authority to the antilegomena and the Apocrypha?

2) ASCCP rejects that “the meaning a canonical text has now may differ from the meaning it had when it was first written.” Did the biblical writers intend for Joshua 10 to be interpreted figuratively, in light of the fifteenth-century Copernican Theory, so that ancient biblical peoples understood all of the Bible’s cosmological passages regarding the relation of the earth to the sun figuratively? Why then the controversy in the western catholic church over Copernicus’ theory? Why the attack on Galileo within the Roman Catholic community (at least until recent times)? On what basis did the biblical writers and original readers come to a figurative meaning of these cosmological passages, if that is how these passages have always been understood? Where in Scripture does it indicate one is to interpret these passages figuratively? Is it not the case that the ancient peoples understood these passages differently from today, and that modern, extra-biblical cosmology has changed the literal meaning into a figurative one (despite Dr. F. Pieper’s efforts and those of others to defend the literal interpretation over against Copernicus’ theory)? What has in fact happened in the LCMS with regard to the interpretation of Psalm 19 and Josh 10 and other geocentric passages but that “extra-canonical sources” have been used in such a way as to call the traditional literal reading into question and to lead to a figurative, theological interpretation?

3) Are there not many contemporary meanings of biblical passages that are different from what the meanings the passages had in the ancient world, passages dealing with government, slavery, food offered to idols, and so on?

4) Could the risen Christ, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, not be speaking through the four canonical gospels, but in such a way that they reflect the post-resurrection situation of the church and not the situation of the historical Jesus? Is not this one way to make sense of the theological differences between the Synoptics, on the one hand, and the Gospel of John, on the other? In other words, it seems especially clear that the Gospel of John interprets Jesus as if he is already risen and glorified, that every pericope in John reflects the risen and glorified Jesus.

The Infallibility of Scripture

ASSCP rejects the notion that “the acceptance of the Bible as such, rather than the Gospel, is the heart and center of Christian faith and theology, and the way to eternal salvation.” Yet this assertion demonstrates a limited perspective on the problem of biblical authority. In too many other parts of ASSCP, the impression is given that one must accept “what the Bible teaches,” as specific Bible pericopes are understood literally by the authors of ASSCP, or risk being condemned.

Too many young people, especially those studying theology and the sciences at the college or graduate level, and a great many educated adults have been overcome by guilt and thrown into a crisis of faith because they were led to believe that every intellectual question or doubt about the meaning of a given biblical story is identical to a lack of faith in God. Too many people think that in order to be “a good Christian” “I must believe the Bible.” “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Well, maybe for the person predisposed to a Fundamentalist mindset, that is not such a problem. But for a person of academic integrity, who is taught to value intellectual honesty and the canons of academic inquiry, who believes that God has given them their reason and senses “and still preserves them,” critical questions about the contemporary meaning of many biblical texts has led to a crisis of faith. “Can I really be a faithful Christian if I do not accept that God created the universe over the course of six twenty-four-hour days several thousand years ago? What if I reject as outdated the notion of a firmament? What if I have doubts about the geographical extent of the Noahic flood? Perhaps I should give up my faith if it means that I must accept these as chronicled history in the Bible.”

Frankly, “acceptance of the Bible as such” is not Christian faith at all. It never has been, as has been demonstrated above. The heart and center of our faith is trust in the promise of the gospel about Jesus Christ alone. That is the object of Christian faith. While the divine law is true and revealing, its acceptance by human beings leads only to despair or pride. That is why the gospel is to be proclaimed, to interrupt and overcome that proclamation of the law.

It needs to be underscored that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments say nothing of the Bible as a whole. The inferences that some theologians have made about the Scriptures as a whole run into problems in terms of the nature and development of the canon, the distinction between homologoumena and antilegomena, and most importantly, the distinction between the law and the gospel, the so-called “canon within the canon” that has always operated in orthodox Christian theology.

It also needs to be underscored that the evangelical-Lutheran Confessions say nothing about the Bible as a whole. They do refer to the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, but these cannot be identified with either the Roman or the Reformed Bible. The Lutheran-confessional point is to stress that any prophetic or apostolic writing cannot be properly understood unless the law is properly distinguished from the gospel. That distinguishing art is assisted by attention to matters of genre, literary style, overall purpose of the biblical-prophetic-apostolic proclamation, narrative structure, and other hermeneutical principles.

All assertions about “the Bible” within the history of Lutheran theology are mere assertions of church tradition, not Scriptural or confessional doctrine. The dogma of Holy Scripture did not originate until the sixteenth century, when the Council of Trent made its decision about the canon and elevated tradition to a place of authority alongside the Scriptures. That decision was in response to Luther’s and the Augsburg Confession’s (and Apology’s) assertion that all Scripture is to be divided into law and gospel and that these two Scriptural teachings are to be properly distinguished. In response to the Roman decision about the canon and tradition, the Reformed Church made its canonical decision and began to develop a list of attributes that the Bible has over against tradition. The churches of the Augsburg Confession held to their Scriptural principles (Scripture interprets Scripture, Christological center, law/gospel distinction, sufficiency of Scripture), following Luther and their confession, but as Werner Elert and others have shown, the development of the doctrine of Scripture within seventeenth-century Lutheranism marked a significant departure from authentic evangelical-confessional principles. That development, as noted above, followed Reformed theologians by developing Scriptural attributes that logically followed from the divine inspiration of the entire Bible (inclusive of the NT antilegomena, but not necessarily so with respect to the OT Apocrypha). Since ASSCP merely repeats some assertions from these seventeenth-century Lutheran theologians, its teachings are neither Scriptural nor confessional, but traditional. Such a recently-formed tradition (seventeenth century), as with all church traditions, is always open to critical examination and, if necessary, revision.

1) To which Scriptures was the first-century author of 2 Tim. 3:16 referring? The Septuagint? The Hebrew Scriptures? Which Scripture verse refers to the entirety of the Bible as a book? Are all of the books within the Roman canon inspired? Or does one disagree with Luther and restrict the canon to the judgment of the Reformed Church? How can one describe as “inspired” a body of literature whose boundaries are unspecified? If one says that “the Bible is the written word of God,” what has happened to the historic distinction between the homologoumena, on the one hand, and the Apocrypha and antilegomena, on the other? What becomes of the important distinctions that Dr. Luther set forth in his prefaces to the biblical writings?

2) Which Scripture passage(s) compel one to conclude that God is “the true Author of every word of Scripture?” How does one fit 1 Cor. 7:25 into that statement?

3) Did Dr. Luther publicly admit, in several places, that the Scriptures contain minor errors and contradictions?

4) Are all of the apparent errors and contradictions within Scripture solely due to errors in textual transmission? Of course there are many, many textual problems within the Scriptures and there is thus the need for careful textual criticism. However, not all of the errors and contradictions in Scripture are due to the process of textual transmission. If that were the case, how does one then account for the serious differences in the gospel accounts of the resurrection, to take just one pericopal example? Are these significant differences merely the result of faulty textual transmission, as if the original written accounts agreed with one another on every historical point? While many textual difficulties and apparent contradictions can be easily resolved, not all are so easily solved, especially when one takes time to compare pericopes within the gospel narratives or compare the stories of the Kings in the Deuteronomistic History with the same kings in the books of the Chronicles. ASSCP ignores the many discrepancies in the biblical materials that are not the result of textual uncertainty. And what of the contradiction that the gospel states to the law? That is not the result of textual problems. That contradiction is at the center of evangelical theology, as Dr. Luther over and over again states in his 1535 Commentary on Galatians.21

5) Did not the biblical authors reflect their erroneous cosmology (at least by modern standards) within the biblical texts?

6) Is the truth of the gospel the same as the truth of the law? Is the purpose of each identical? Does the action of each upon a sinner have the same result? If there is more than one kind of truth within the Scriptures, could the fact that there is more than one kind of literary genre in the Scriptures also suggest more than one kind of truth within the Scriptures (depending on the nature of the genre)?

7) Is there not a distinction between “saving faith” and “historical knowledge?” Does saving faith require that all the statements in the Bible must be “factually” and “historically” “true?” What do each of these terms mean as they are used in ASSCP?

8) Jesus applies his words in John 10:35 to Psalm 82. Does this application lend support to the traditional interpretation of this verse in post-nineteenth-century Missouri Lutheranism that “Scripture’s statements are incontrovertible; if Scripture says something, that something is a fact?” That such a meaning is unsupportable has been demonstrated in an essay by a former executive director of the CTCR.22 No one disputes that the Psalms are “Scripture,” that these Scriptures cannot be kept from reaching their fulfillment in Christ, the incarnate Word of God, but to use John 10 in reference to the whole of whatever Christian Bible is in front of oneself is not supportable nor is the view that just because something is stated in Scripture that one has properly understood the statement in relation to Christ and the gospel about Christ.

9) To say that the entire Bible contains no errors or contradictions is in fact to stand above the Scriptures and make a pronouncement about it, a position that ASSCP itself rejects in this section on infallibility (e.g., accepting “some norm or criterion of truth above the Scriptures”). The only way to speak faithfully about the Scriptures “from below,” so to speak, is to listen to what they actually say. No one can avoid applying his or her mind to the Scriptures. The distinction between a so-called “ministerial use” of reason and a “magisterial” use of Scripture is a false one. Everyone must apply his or her mind to the Scriptures, to love the Lord of the Scriptures with his or her entire heart, mind, and soul. If the Scriptures do not in fact err, then we may conclude that they do not err. But if there are minor errors in the Scriptures, then may we not conclude that there are errors in the Scriptures, as Dr. Luther himself frankly acknowledged?

10) How does one know for certain that the literary genres in the first chapters of Genesis are meant to be understood “as speaking of literal, historical facts” (quoting from the 1959 Statement on Scripture) and Revelation 20 “must be interpreted on its own terms” as being “symbolic” or “metaphoric?” Given extra-biblical forms and genres that are similar to sections in each of these chapters, in Genesis as well as Revelation, can one make better judgments about the literary genres in these chapters? As the 1959 statement acknowledges, judgments about literary style and genre must be made according to grammar, context (including extra-biblical cultures and similar literary styles and genres outside of Scripture), and the linguistic usage of the time. Surely the purpose of the Scriptures is not to teach us “scientific information,” as the 1959 document also acknowledges, but to instruct us “for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 3:15). What is a “twenty-four-hour day” prior to the creation or placement of the sun? So why treat the first chapters of Genesis as if they are presenting scientific knowledge? Or why interpret figuratively such biblical statements about “sunrise” and “sunset,” the “corners of the earth,” “the pillars of the earth,” etc., when there is nothing in Scripture to indicate that these are to be interpreted figuratively and the only reason we do so today is because of extra-biblical evidence that is contrary to a literal interpretation?

11) Do not 2 Pet. 1:20-21 and 2 Tim. 3:16-17 emphasize the function of Scripture to lead one to salvation? Then why does ASCCP insist on the non-biblical, recent innovation that the Scriptures are “inerrant” in all matters that are treated within the Scriptures? ASCCP seems to ignore the functional thrust of these two biblical passages and instead twists them into a speculative concept of “inerrancy” that is based on a speculative concept of “divine inspiration” that is applied to the entire Bible (whichever canon one is using). The prophetic and apostolic Scriptures are the “infallible” word of God precisely in their character to function as words of divine law and gospel that have an impact on sinful human beings in service to faith in Christ. Isaiah 55 is apropos here as well.

12) In several places ASSCP uses the issue of the ordination of women as an example. Is it significant that the principal author of ASSCP today has changed his view about women serving in the pastoral office and that today he not only is open to discussing the issue but thinks that the Scriptures do not prohibit that practice? (I should add that Dr. Bohlmann and I have had several significant conversations about that issue and about ASSCP. He has told me that he regrets how ASSCP has been used within the synod to stifle theological discussion among members who disagree about the ordination of women and other theological matters.)

13) Is not the use of the term “historicity” in reference to what Paul asserts about “Adam” in Romans 5 and 1 Cor. 11 an anachronism? How can a first-century person, including a biblical author, have held the modern notion of “historicity?” Is not the actual “intent” of the biblical authors, in their own historical setting, precisely what needs to be taken into account in the effort to understand what the biblical authors were in fact asserting about a particular issue? Otherwise, contemporary interpreters run the risk of imposing upon the biblical authors modern ideas that they did not hold. When the biblical authors use expressions like “sunrise” and “sunset” and refer to the immovable earth or the earth being founded upon pillars or the sun moving around the earth, we don’t today use these statements to uphold a geocentric view of the earth or to attack the modern theory of Copernicus. The scandal of God’s temporal address to human beings is located precisely in its historical character. The biblical writers spoke and wrote as people of their time. Their view of the world was different from modern, scientific views. To use Rom. 5 or 1 Cor. 11 to prove the historicity of Adam and Eve is no different from the person who uses Psalm 19 or Josh 10 to prove that the sun goes around the earth. That use of Scripture is no different from the person who uses Psalm 93 (and dozens of similar passages) to prove the stability of the earth or Dan. 4 (and dozens of similar passages) to prove that the earth is not a sphere.

The Unity of Scripture

This section of ASSCP is faulty from the start because it assumes a fixed Scriptural canon, when in fact such a canon does not exist within the churches of the Augsburg Confession. While the study edition of ASSCP refers to “a quiet historical process which took place in the worship life of the church,” this process was not inspired nor did it lead to a fixed canon (at least not until the Roman Church attempted to fix it in the sixteenth century and the Reformed Church followed suit–both creating biblical canons that are significantly different from each other). Luther and his followers had no problem quoting from the OT Apocrypha, just as Luther had no qualms about raising critical questions about the NT antilegomena, which had been questioned in the church since the second and third centuries. The problem of the canon has never been resolved in the history of the Lutheran church, nor can it be resolved. It must remain an open question, for the reasons stated above.

This section of ASSCP is also faulty because it does not acknowledge or operate with the basic evangelical-Lutheran hermeneutical principle of properly distinguishing the law and the gospel throughout the Scriptures. How can a truly Lutheran document include this sentence: “We reject the view that Holy Scripture, both within and between its various books and authors, presents us with conflicting or contradictory teachings and theologies.”? Of course Holy Scripture contains throughout a basic conflict between the law and the gospel! That is why the key to understanding Holy Scripture, at least as stated in Apology IV, is being able to make a proper distinction between these two conflicting, contradictory biblical teachings. Paul’s teaching about the Mosaic law contradicts what the Mosaic law itself states. Jesus’ words and actions against the Mosaic law contradict what the law itself states. Yes, one God speaks through the prophetic and apostolic writings (leaving open the question of whether God speaks through the OT Apocrypha and the NT antilegomena), but the message of this one God is divided into two basic and contradictory messages. The divine law and the divine gospel do not form an “organic unity,” as if just because they both originate in God they must be one with each other. The rejection of such an “organic unity” is what marks Lutheran Christians as different from the Reformed, who were the first to develop this idea of an “organic unity” between the OT and the NT. That such a view has sometimes crept into Lutheran theology is clear from an examination of heilsgeschichtliche theologies in the nineteenth century.23 God has more than one message to say to human beings, and the law is a quite different divine message from the gospel. When the law speaks, that word is radically different from the gospel. When the gospel addresses the sinner, that word is radically different from the law. Thank Christ the gospel is God’s final word for the repentant sinner!

1) Do the catena of quotations from the evangelical-Lutheran Confessions that are given in this section of the study edition of ASSCP not contradict the notion of “organic unity” that is given in the original section of ASSCP?24  It sure seems like the person who put together this string of confessional quotations was aware of a serious problem in this section. On the basis of the confessional quotations themselves, one would have to say that this section would need to be seriously rewritten to reflect the distinction between law and gospel that runs throughout the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures.

2) Are members of the synod free to agree or disagree with Luther’s judgment that statements in the antilegomena writings of the NT are contradicted by clear statements of gospel in the homologoumena (e.g., James 2:24; Heb. 6:4-6)? Could Luther have been right on this point?

3) The final sentence in this section contradicts and denies the historical fact that individuals who publicly pledged to teach the doctrinal content of the Scriptures, as that content has been articulated and confessed in and through the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, the catechisms and Smalcald Articles of Dr. Luther, the Treatise, and the Formula of Concord, nevertheless disagreed with one another about the contradictions between the homologoumena and the antilegomena. For example, Melanchthon disagreed with Luther’s judgments about the non-apostolic character of James and Hebrews and about whether these writings contradicted what Paul teaches about the gospel, but Melanchthon did not thereby think Luther’s views made it “impossible for the church to have and confess a unified theological position that is truly Biblical and evangelical.” He even honored Luther as a competent theologian. It needs to be underscored that Luther’s Bible (inclusive of the OT Apocrypha and the NT antilegomena) was published with his prefaces which set forth his criticisms of the antilegomena and some of the OT Apocrypha. Do not the evangelical-Lutheran confessional writings serve as the sufficient basis for “a unified theological position that is truly biblical and evangelical?”

Old Testament Prophecy

1) Do not the evangelical-Lutheran Confessions make a distinction between the Messiah who is to come and Jesus the Christ who has come? Is it not the case that the latter surpassed at least some Jewish expectations about the Messiah and contradicted others?

2) Why can’t a Christian scholar read the prophetic writings of the OT on their own terms, as well as in reference to their fulfillment, their contradiction (Jesus did not set up an earthly, military kingdom with its center in Jerusalem), and their being surpassed in unexpected ways (forgiving lepers, raising the dead, eating with sinners and tax-collectors, dying on a Roman cross) in and through Jesus?

3) What about the biblical distinction between prophecies of judgment and promises of grace and mercy? Once again it is clear that ASSCP has given up on the central Lutheran hermeneutical principle of distinguishing between law and gospel. Not all OT prophecies are messianic; not all prophecies, as interpreted within the NT, are purely predictive. Biblical prophecies within the prophetic writings are both promises of threat and promises of mercy. On occasion the NT uses typology and allegory to understand OT biblical promises of judgment/destruction and grace. And the biblical promise of fulfillment is not something “past,” but something “present” (as one hears the gospel promise, “for you,” in word and sacrament), and something “future” (as one hopes for the restoration of all things as promised by the OT prophets and NT apostles). Until that eschaton, we know only in part, as looking in a dirty mirror. But then, we shall know in full, even as we are known.

Historical Methods of Biblical Interpretation

ASSCP rightly invites “historical investigation” of the biblical writings and acknowledges that the documents are “to be taken seriously as historical documents.” ASSCP also rightly stresses that “the Christian interpreter of Scripture cannot adopt uncritically the presuppositions and canons of the secular historian” and that the Christian’s use of “historical techniques” is to be guided by “the presuppositions of his faith in the Lord of history, who reveals himself in Holy Scripture as the one who creates, sustains, and even enters our history in order to lead it to His end.” The synod’s CTCR and conventions have encouraged the use of historical-critical methods for biblical interpretation. For example, see the 1967 CTCR report, A Lutheran Stance toward Contemporary Biblical Studies (commended by the 1967 Synod Convention [Res. 2-02]) and the 1969 CTCR report, A Project in Biblical Hermeneutics (commended by the 1969 Synod Convention [Res. 2-04]). Both reports and many synod essays from these years make positive use of historical-critical methods for biblical interpretation, which have been taught at the synod’s seminaries since the early 1950s.

1) Are some events that are depicted within the apostolic writings of the NT more theologically important than other events that are depicted throughout the prophetic and apostolic writings of Holy Scripture? If so, do historical methods unveil this distinction or are there properly theological factors that assist in making this distinction? Does this distinction have a bearing on the nature of the gospel itself? For example, is the floating ax that is depicted in 2 Kings 6:6 just as theologically central, and even theologically necessary, as the death and resurrection of Jesus that is reported in the apostolic witness? Or another example: Is the story of Adam and Eve (which is not referenced elsewhere in the OT and only a few times in the NT) of the same theological character as the witness to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead? Is it not significant that the apostolic witness to our Lord’s resurrection includes the claim that if the Lord has not been raised for us, our faith is in vain? Is one’s faith “in vain” if it can be demonstrated that the story of Adam and Eve (Gen. 2-3) is to be theologically understood in a figurative manner? Clearly, there is no gospel if our Lord was not raised from the dead, as the apostles testified, but can the same be said if there was no literal Adam and Eve and the story is to be understood figuratively? Could the story of Adam and Eve still be understood figuratively in its truth and power by revealing the nature of human beings who are created by God, who continue to rebel against God today, who continue to come into divine judgment and death? Are not these truths truly true, regardless of whether Adam (as depicted in Genesis 2-3) was an actual historical individual or the story is best interpreted as a figurative, theological exposé of human beings as human beings?

2) Are there non-literal genres within the Scriptures? How does one identify such genres? Merely from examining other Scriptures or might one receive assistance through comparison with similar extra-biblical writings that share the same literary features? Is it not the case that the biblical writers used and assimilated foreign literary forms without necessarily affirming their pagan content (e.g., the similarity in motifs between stories in the Gilgamesh epic [ca. 3000 B.C.] and stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis)?

3) Might some stories within the Scriptures be theologically profound and assert important theological truths, even if they didn’t actually happen in history? For example, must the story of the prodigal son and the waiting father have actually happened for the teaching that Jesus sought to convey with that story to be true? Certainly, the story might be based on an actual event, but must it be so based in order to be true? Surely there had to be some initial creaturely sinners, but must the story of Adam and Eve be based on an actual series of events in order for the story to be theologically true? What about the rabbinic legend of the “rock” that followed the Israelites in the wilderness? Must this actually have happened for Paul to make the argument he makes on the basis of this legend? Normally “fables” from the ancient world involve “talking animals.” Do the stories of the talking serpent and the talking donkey have to have actually happened in history for the stories to be true theologically?

4) What is wrong with attempting to explain certain biblical miracles in “naturalistic” terms, whenever possible? Do not the Scriptures themselves do this on occasion (e.g., the exodus event occurred through “a strong wind”)?

5) Do differences in exegetical judgments necessarily imply doctrinal disagreement or is it possible to disagree with someone’s exegesis as long as that does not contradict the analogia fidei and the doctrinal content of the evangelical-Lutheran Confessions? Certainly ASSCP acknowledges that one might very well disagree with the exegesis of those sixteenth-century confessional writings without necessarily rejecting the doctrinal content of those confessions.

6) Why does ASSCP not provide a summary of the CTCR’s commendations of historical-critical methods for biblical interpretation? Since the document seeks to provide guidance to the synod, surely providing a summary of the tools that ought to be used to uncover the theological meaning(s) of Scriptural texts would have been in order.

E. Article V: Original Sin

1) Has ASSCP properly understood the different genres and language styles that are present in Genesis 1-3? In a wiser time in its history, the LCMS accepted and commended the important CTCR report, Creation in Biblical Perspective, which affirms that the language and genres of the early chapters of Genesis are not scientific but phenomenological. The same point is made very helpfully by Martin H. Scharlemann in his 1958 essay on “The Inerrancy of Scripture.” A similar perspective is reflected in the important study by the LCMS theologian Norman Habel, The Form and Meaning of the Fall Narrative.25 According to Dr. Habel:

Genesis 2-3 is not an annalistic report of certain incidents from antiquity, but incorporates some elements which must be understood in a double or ‘deeper than surface’ meaning. In short, we misinterpret Genesis 2-3 if we treat it as a bare historical chronicle or record of past events. Symbolism of various kinds is also involved; to follow the surface meaning of the text is not sufficient if we are to interpret the passage in a manner consistent with its character.  Perhaps we may tentatively propose the definition of ‘symbolic religious history’ for the literary form of Gen 2-3. In other words, that which God wishes to relate is described in terms of religious symbol and dramatic story rather than in abstract language of dogma or the secular annalistic terms of history as it is commonly defined.26

2) Is there any a priori reason why God could not or should not have employed ancient literary forms to convey the message God intended to convey then as well as now? Could God have used a literary form such as “myth” or “legend” to convey his divine words in the past? Is it not the case that a revelation that has come “in history” would almost perforce have to make use of these forms of its time?

Among the ancient forms of Scripture, which it is a constant struggle for us to understand and evaluate properly, must probably (and at least may, it would seem, in the light of comparative materials) be included the use of saga, legend, myth, pseudepigraphy, vaticinium ex eventu, etc.–all of which appear to us to be ‘false,’ but hardly so by the standards of antiquity and presumably then not of Scripture either–seen as historical revelation. This may be compared somewhat to the use throughout the Scripture of various kinds of parabolic material–and even of fables (cf. Judges 9 and II Kings 14). We feel that the hermeneutical rule which insists that these Gattungen must always be labeled as such is an extra-Scriptural one which at least may not be insisted upon as an article of faith (hence possible applications to Jonah, Daniel, the Samson and Elisha pericopes, the angel vz. Sennacherib, the visit of the Magi, etc.) That is, there is again here an area of permissible, exegetical disparity without any necessary doubt or denial of Scripture’s truth (as measured by the original intent). (Cf. also the traditional Lutheran hermeneutics of the apocalyptic literature.)27

3) Can one accept the physical, factual evidence for the evolution of species on planet earth, including the evolution of human beings, and still teach and confess the biblical teachings about human beings as creatures of God, created in God’s image and likeness, and about original sin?28 Biblically, “Adam” (Hebrew: “human being”) was clearly the father of the human race (Luke 3), and thus was a “real,” “historical” individual, and necessarily so. But, at the same time and more significantly, Adam as “the first human being” is the representative of all sinful humankind so that we can proclaim that Christ, “the second Adam,” is the progenitor of a new humanity. The Augsburg Confession says, “Our churches also teach that since the fall of Adam all men who are propagated according to nature are born in sin. That is to say, they are without fear of God, are without trust in God, and are concupiscent.”29 It is this second sentence, not the first, that distinguishes the genuinely Lutheran understanding of original sin from other pre- and post-Reformation versions of that doctrine.30 The problem with “creationist” understandings of Genesis 2-3 is that they often tend to concentrate on affirming that Adam and Eve were two real historical human beings, as if the church’s teaching about original sin could be more effectively stated and more firmly grounded by focusing primarily on the two original sinners rather than on hearing the truth of Genesis 3 as it reveals and diagnoses our own lack of fear and trust in God. (One needs to note that the words “historical,” “historicity,” and “real” are neither Biblical nor confessional.) The main point of Genesis 3 is not merely that two people some time ago fell into sin, over and done with, but that these words of God diagnose sin and sinners today, condemn sinners to death, and promise rescue to present readers and hearers. Adam, as Paul says very clearly, is the one “in whom all are dying” (notice: the one in whom all are still dying) as Christ is the one in whom “all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). As the Lutheran Confessions state over and over, Adam is “der alte Adam,” “the old Adam,” that which “is born in us from Adam” (LC 65). Adam, therefore, is still very much a present reality and mortally powerful. That Adam, in which we are all sinning and dying, can only be defeated by nothing less than our dying and rising with Christ, a dying and rising that has begun in our baptism.

Thus, even if LCMS interpreters might disagree about the “how” of creation and about the nature of the historical origin of sin (though not about the fact that such origins occurred!), they will still agree with the theological truths confessed in the Scriptures, the Apostles’ Creed (and its explication in Luther’s catechisms), in Article II of the Augsburg Confession, and in the other articles of the Confessions that bear on matters of creation, sin, and grace (e.g., Part III of the Smalcald Articles). Why is the wondrous mystery of God’s creation of human beings (likely through the process of evolution) and their creaturely dependence upon God their creator impaired by a non-literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis? Unlike the death and resurrection of Jesus, which the apostles testify occurred, since they were eye-witnesses to the events, the story of Adam and Eve does not lose its theological import if it is interpreted figuratively. When placed in its original, historical, and cultural contexts, the story of Adam and Eve reveals important truths about all human beings, from the very first of them up to the present. The truths in that story are profound and illuminating, independent of whether or not there actually lived a couple called “Adam and Eve.”

[The figurative] view may not suffice for the biblical literalist who claims not only that there really was a primal set of parents who actually fell, but also insists that there must have been such wayward parents. No Law and Gospel distinction will decide whether Adam and Eve are historical persons. But that distinction will resist the erroneous notion that a literal Adam must be affirmed for the sake of the Gospel. Even when St. Paul draws a parallel between Adam and Christ, he does so for the sake of calling attention to the new life Christ brings to a race of culpable men caught in sin and death.31

4) Is it not the case that physical evidence in nature has in fact led Christians to reinterpret many biblical passages that involve cosmological issues? Is it not the case that theologians within the LCMS no longer insist on the geocentric view of the world that the biblical authors assume? Does anyone within the synod today interpret literally the account of Joshua making the sun and the moon to stand still? Does anyone insist, as Dr. F. Pieper and other synod pastors (even as late as the 1920s) insisted, that the scriptures depend for their veracity and reliability on taking their statements literally, that the Joshua story tells us the sun and the moon stood still, and that therefore no Christian can accept the Copernican theory? Is it not the case that evidence from sources outside of the Scriptures has led us to conclude rightly that the biblical writer used language which he and his contemporaries believed to be accurate, but which are scientifically inaccurate by our standards of knowledge? Why allow extra-biblical evidence to affect our interpretation of these cosmological passages, but not allow other extra-biblical evidence to shed light on the statements about creation in the first chapters of the Bible and in Psalm 19 and in other Scripture passages that address cosmological and natural history matters?

F. Article VI: Confessional Subscription

1) If ASSCP does not clearly use the proper distinction between the law and the gospel as the key to unlocking the interpretation of the Scriptures, then how can its author(s) say that they “acknowledge and accept the confessional understanding of the nature of Holy Scripture and of the proper theological principles for its interpretation?” What the author(s) has/have set forth in ASSCP is a seventeenth-century summary of the nature of Holy Scripture by some Lutheran and Reformed theologians.

2) Wherein do the Confessions insist on “the historicity” of Adam and Eve as “real historical persons whose fall into sin was a real historical event?” Is that the emphasis that the evangelical-Lutherans place on “Adam and Eve?”

3) How can one’s “subscription to the Lutheran Confessions” pledge one “to preach and teach in accordance with the entire Holy Scripture,” when the canon is not fixed, the gospel has done away with the legal demands of the law, and cultural change has led the original Lutheran Confessors to confess that even some of the NT apostolic commands can be freely set aside because of cultural change?

4) Why does ASSCP not set forth any hermeneutical principles for the interpretation of either the Scriptures or the Confessions? Why nothing about Sacra scriptura sui ipsius interpres, the analogia fidei, the sensus literalis (the sense the words likely had for their original audience/readership), the proper distinction between the law and the gospel, the need to pay attention to how biblical texts have been understood in the church over time (while still insisting on the priority and sufficiency of the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures to interpret themselves over against all interpreters), the need for the use of historical criticism to uncover the historic meaning(s) in the biblical writings and to address the historical distance that exists between the ancient biblical writings and all contemporary interpreters, the need to pay attention to language and narrative structure, the need to discern the varying genres within the biblical writings, and the need to balance “what a biblical text has meant” with “what that text means today?” There are no pure a priori or timeless principles that will lead ineluctably to a faithful understanding and contemporary application of biblical teaching. Rather, biblical interpretation is always a matter of wrestling with the scriptural text, of wrestling ever again with how that text is interpreting oneself and the world, of coming ever anew to an understanding of the material contents of the Scriptures in their witness to Christ, to the divine law, to the gospel promise, to apostolic and prophetic exhortation. “A lifelong relationship develops, in fact a love relationship is formed, between the biblical text that is at hand for study, with its freeing authority, and those who interpret it, within the freedom that is granted them; it is also within certain confines that they examine the text critically, this very text that interprets them and gives them understanding… It hardly needs mentioning that this love relationship cannot last for a short time only; it describes a faithful relationship that lasts a lifetime.”32

G. Dissent within the LCMS

Over the past twenty-five years I have become more and more aware of how the bylaws and ethos of the synod really do not allow for dissent on matters that some synod members think are beyond discussion (e.g., the interpretation of Genesis 1-3 in light of scientific knowledge; the ordination of women to the pastoral office; other theological issues). Despite language in the CTCR’s “Guiding Principles” document that “the Synod does not intend to impede the fraternal discussion of doctrinal issues, and that the Synod recognizes that such discussion may even lead to the revision or correction of its official doctrinal statements,” the fact of the matter is, those who question and respectfully criticize synod resolutions, such as the one that adopted ASSCP, are pressured to keep silent or to leave the synod. While the synod allows for dissent and has established procedures for it, once a resolution of a doctrinal nature is adopted by the synod, those who disagree with the resolution on the basis of the Scriptures and the Confessions will have a difficult time making their case within the synod. A pastor or professor who seeks to demonstrate that the synod has in fact erred or has adopted a flawed position will likely face formal charges, especially if he publishes an essay that is critical of an adopted synodical resolution or document. The threat of expulsion from one’s vocational employment has led many to refrain from questioning the synod publicly. Because the synod has defined “honor and uphold” to mean “to abide by, act, and teach in accordance with,” it really is impossible for a member of the synod to speak or write publicly about his concerns or to make an argument against synodical statements and resolutions without immediately being put into a judicial and adversarial framework. I suppose one should not be surprised by this. After all, that is what happened to Dr. Luther, too. How ironic that an evangelical-Lutheran church body would not be more open to dissent, more engaging of it through civil theological discourse and argument on the basis of the Scriptures, the Confessions, “and plain reason,” and not so quick to dismiss a dissent by appealing to synodical traditions, resolutions, CTCR statements, etc, as if that appeal is sufficient to settle the matter. Why not follow the example of Dr. Luther and welcome forthright, public debate? Why follow instead the example of the sixteenth-century Roman authorities against Dr. Luther and his colleagues?

I am convinced that it has been a mistake for the synod to have introduced the language of “honor and uphold” in reference to its convention resolutions and to have defined “honor and uphold” the way that it has. These actions have in effect placed the synod in an authoritarian and coercive position above its individual members and above the Scriptures themselves, since the synod will always control what the Scriptures mean for the synod and how the Scriptures are to be applied in the life of the synod. Just as in Luther’s day, so also in our own, there has developed a subordination of Holy Scripture to the teaching authority of the synod (CTCR, synod convention, synod president) and this has led to the incarceration of the Scriptures under synodical authority. In reality, our church body is no longer truly under the evangelical norm of the Holy Scripture and the evangelical-Lutheran Confessions, but under the norm of the synod, its convention resolutions and statements, its official entities (convention, synod president, district presidents)–with guidance from the synodical equivalent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

I’d like to believe there was actually a time in the synod when the only norms for church doctrine were those to which the members unconditionally subscribed in their ordination vow and their entrance into the synod (for congregations), namely, the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures and the evangelical-Lutheran Confessions. Certainly C. F. W. Walther opposed a legalistic and coercive understanding of the synod and its confession of orthodox doctrine.

I did not seek to become a doctor of theology. I was encouraged to pursue that vocation by my seminary teachers, especially Dr. Norman Nagel, Dr. John Johnson, and Dr. L. Dean Hempelmann (who confirmed me when I was in high school, who preached at my ordination, and who has been a regular conversation partner with me over the years), and by my Concordia College, Portland, teachers (and later colleagues), especially Dr. John Scheck, Dr. Hans Spalteholz, Dr. Richard Reinisch, Dr. E. P. Weber, and Dr. Tom Wohlbrecht.

As a doctor of theology I have tried to take my responsibility to teach pure doctrine as seriously as did Dr. Luther. He, too, of course was a doctor of theology who did not pursue that doctorate but had it thrust upon him (partly to help him stop his Anfechtungen–caused partly by his navel gazing). Like him, I have found such teaching to be both a joy and a burden. Following Dr. Elert, I believe doctors of theology have been given the vocation of making responsible inquiry into various formulations of doctrine and theology and of discerning the mandatory, essential content of the church’s dogma, the necessary minimum and maximum of the church’s speech. As I have written elsewhere, that task continually involves putting the church in the position of being questioned, questioned about its doctrine and theological formulations, questioned about its speech and its practices. All Christians, but especially those who have been trained as doctors of theology, are called to test the spirits, to test church doctrine and theological formulations, to measure them against Christ, which is to say, to test them against the articles of faith and the one doctrine of the gospel as these are given in Holy Scripture and defined within the Confessions. Such inquiry into church doctrine ought to be continually tested as well, to discern whether it accords with an evangelical pattern of doctrine.

There is such a thing as false doctrine and even heresy (which is worse than a false theological position that nevertheless does not deny anything essential in the doctrines of God, the person and work of Christ, the one gospel of faith, and the sacraments). But are there not at least some theological matters about which there can be honest disagreement without denying an essential article of the faith? I think there are and I believe the arguments I have made in my two dissents fall into those areas. I also think that my criticisms of ASSCP also fall into these areas of theological disagreement. Theological discussion and even argument should over time only help to strengthen our synod, its confession of the gospel, its theological understanding and applications in its mission in the contemporary world. But such discussion is not really possible at present, unless you are already convinced that the synod has not erred in its convention resolutions. In practice, the synod seems always to be above the Scriptures and the Confessions and totally closed to the notion that its (slim) majorities of delegates (and its very few CTCR members) might have made theological errors or passed resolutions or documents that impede its mission.

According to the synod constitution, the sole basis for discussion and debate in the synod is Holy Scripture and the evangelical-Lutheran Confessions as providing the evangelical pattern of doctrine and practice; and the power in such discussion and debating is the power of the Word and of persuasion, not coercion.33


Valparaiso, Ind.

September 8, 2012

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  1. LW 32:112.
  2. For this development in seventeenth-century Lutheranism, see Heinrich Schmid Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3rd ed., trans. Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1889), §§6-12 [38-91]; and Arthur Carl Piepkorn, “What Does ‘Inerrancy’ Mean,” Concordia Theological Monthly 36 (September 1965), 577-93.
  3. See, for example, essays in historical theology (included exegesis) in all of the formal dialogues of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue in the U.S. The problem of teaching authority was formally addressed in the sixth dialogue, but the issue has repeatedly arisen in the context of other areas. See Paul C. Empie, T. Austin Murphy, and Joseph A. Burgess, eds., Teaching Authority and Infallibility in the Church, Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VI (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978).
  4. 1973 Synod Resolution 3-01, which addressed “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles,” was adopted by a vote of 652 to 455. In 1938 a majority of the delegates at the synod convention voted to acknowledge doctrinal unity between the synod and the old ALC. When a minority protested that decision and argued that doctrinal unity did not then exist between the two churches, the majority withdrew their vote and sought to convince the minority that unity did in fact exist. That action was a model for how a church should make its doctrinal decisions. (The Confessional Lutheran was begun in the wake of that convention to work against any recognition of doctrinal unity between the synod and the old ALC.) Since the early 1970s another, political model has been operative in the synod and it has led, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, to the stifling of theological discussion in the synod, to the marginalization and/or exile of significant thinkers, and to the loss of large numbers of laity who have left the synod (or never joined it) because of theological disagreement with these slim-majority decisions.
  5. Walter E. Keller, Kenneth F. Korby, Robert C. Schultz, and David G. Truemper, “A Review Essay of A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles,” The Cresset Reprints (May 1973 and October 1973), 8.
  6. WA (German Bible) 7, 385, 125ff [Prefaces to the New Testament, 1522]; LW 35:396.  This comment is made in Luther’s preface to the books of James and Jude in his 1522 German translation of the New Testament.  Although Luther toned down some of his most critical prefatory remarks after 1534, even later he still spoke of the “really main books.”  “The Lutheran Church cannot subscribe infallibility to a council.  So there remains the possibility of error in the judgment of the church as to what is the written Word of God and what is not.  The fact that a book is inspired can be believed only on the basis of an internal criterion.  This was for Luther the famous Was Christum treibet.  A Biblical book that does not have Christ crucified for its content is not canonical in the strictest sense even if it is in the Bible and read in the church” (Sasse, “Luther and the Word of God,” Accents in Luther’s Theology, ed. Heino Kadai [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967], 87).
  7. WA 39/1, 47, 3ff. [Theses on Faith and Law, 1535]; LW 34:112.
  8. WA 40/1, 459; [Large Commentary on  Galatians, 1531/35]; LW 26:295.
  9. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 81.
  10. Gerhard Ebeling, “Introductory Lectures on the Study of the Bible,” Word and Faith, trans. James W. Leitch (London: SCM Press, 1963), 427.
  11. For the following, I am relying on material from my book, Fundamental Theology (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 278-299.
  12. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947), Q1, a8.
  13. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:vi, 3.
  14. Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way, ed. and trans. Jeffrey G. Silcock and Mark C. Mattes, Lutheran Quarterly Books (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007), 69.
  15. Gustav Aulén, The Faith of the Christian Church, 4th ed., trans. Eric H. Wahlstrom and G. Everett Arden (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1948), 365.
  16. See especially Joseph Kelly, ed., Perspectives on Scripture and Tradition: Essays by Robert M. Grant, Robert E. McNally, and George H. Tavard (Notre Dame, IN: Fides, 1976); Robert M Grant, Heresy and Criticism: The Search for Authenticity in Early Christian Literature (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993); and F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1988), 255-69.
  17. Martin H. Scharlemann, “The Inerrancy of Scripture” (unpublished essay, 1958), 6.
  18. Walter E. Keller, “A Scrutiny of a Statement on Scripture,” The Cresset (June 1972), 7. While giving lip service to the “primary” purpose of Scripture, namely, to make people wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, ASSCP has really elevated another, “secondary” and independent purpose of Scripture into pride of place. That latter purpose is to give a literal record of past events from Genesis 1 through the end of Revelation. “The Statement’s sequence of topics seemed to promise a discussion of the Holy Scriptures in an evangelical framework; instead an a priori prescription regarding the historicity of biblical records, untouched by the Lutheran insight into the distinction between the Law and the Gospel, is offered instead” (ibid., 8).
  19. These questions are also raised by Keller et al., “Review Essay,” 15.
  20. Scharlemann, “The Inerrancy of Scripture,” 15.
  21. Cf. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 3.250).
  22. Richard Jungkuntz, “An Approach to the Exegesis of John 10:34-36,” Concordia Theological Monthly 35 (October 1964), 556-65.
  23. Cf. Matthew L. Becker, The Self-giving God and Salvation History: The Trinitarian Theology of Johannes von Hofmann (New York: T & T Clark, 2004).
  24. Cf. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 3.250-51.
  25. Norman Habel, The Form and Meaning of the Fall Narrative (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary, 1965).
  26. Habel, The Form and Meaning of the Fall Narrative, 9.
  27. Martin H. Scharlemann and Horace D. Hummel, “Notes on the Valid Use of the Historical-Critical Method” (unpublished essay; February 7, 1958), 8. “To impose our forms and presuppositions upon the ancient forms is to run the risk (to say the least) of completely misunderstanding and misapplying them” (ibid., 4). The authors are particularly concerned to stress that ancient historiography is not modern historiography, that biblical “history” is not precisely like modern “history.” “That is, the Biblical ‘histories’ are written almost exclusively to illustrate and demonstrate a theological thesis (i.e., the prophetic doctrine of history); they are more concerned with Geschichte than with Historie. The fact that the Biblical records have been revealed in history should also mean that, as with other historical peoples, Israel’s memories and traditions of its early existence have been refracted through the prisms of later experiences, determining the selection and accentuation of materials (cf. the Gospels)” (ibid., 4-5).
  28. This paragraph is a slight revision of a similar paragraph in my essay, “The Scandal of the LCMS Mind.”
  29. Article II, Augsburg Confession; cf. Article III, Smalcald Articles.  The following analysis on “the old Adam” is indebted to some brief reflections on “the old Adam,” written in an earlier LCMS context: Robert Bertram, “Informal Remarks on the Historicity of Adam,” The Promising Tradition (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary in Exile, 1974), 41v-41x.  Another former LCMS theologian, Edward Schroeder, following yet another former LCMS theologian, Walter Bouman, offers an evangelical theology of sin that takes into account the main lines of evolutionary development.  See Schroeder’s comments on Romans 5:12-19 at the following web address:
  30. This point is also made by Keller et al, “Review Essay,” 18.
  31. Keller, “A Scrutiny of a Statement on Scripture,” 8.
  32. Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way, 91-92.
  33. See C. F. W. Walther’s first presidential address at the second meeting of synod in 1848. This address was translated as “Dr. Walther’s First Presidential Address,” by Paul F. Koehneke, Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly 30 (April 1960):12-20.  “I mean the thought that, according to the constitution under which our synodical union exists, we have merely the power to advise one another, that we have only the power of the Word, and of convincing” (ibid., 13).

5 thoughts on “Talking Points about Doctrinal Authority in the LCMS

  1. Thank you for this. I am no pastor, but I have thought along these lines for some time. It got to the point that, after publicly expressing concerns, I was urged by a higher up in the LCMS to just leave the synod if I didn’t like it. It broke my heart, but I did, and am now a member of the ELCA. I wish I would have known there were more people who shared my concerns before I left!

  2. Pingback: Dr. Becker’s Ever Shrinking Word of God (Part 2) | Steadfast Lutherans

  3. Pingback: Dr. Becker’s Ever Shrinking Word of God

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