The Stumbling Block

Eugene Brueggemann

Eugene Brueggemann is a premier historian of Lutheranism in America. This article reflects his rich campus ministry experience at Kent State, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois in Chicago. He has also served parishes in New York and Colorado.

A contributor to the online Daystar conversation posed this classic question: “If God’s word is not inerrant (or infallible), then who gets to decide which part of God’s word is in error?”The way this question was processed within the Missouri Synod in the second half of the last century led to tragic controversy in Synod. It marked the end of Missouri’s remarkable unity and gospel-centered outreach. It also led to the formation of the ELCA.

The deeply-scarred Synod continues to preach the word which, as promised, blesses its hearers and inspires God’s mission. That some within Missouri’s fellowship continue to wrestle with the question posed above is a sign of God’s grace. A number of fine responses to the question were offered by Daystar participants. I also responded with this paragraph:

None of God’s word is in error. God’s word is God’s message of law and gospel progressively revealed in the history of Israel and their scriptures, climaxing with the words and works of Jesus of Nazareth. This message was fulfilled and validated by Jesus’ death and resurrection. The life-giving Spirit replaced the letter of the law as the source of Jesus’ disciples’ knowledge (gnosis) and wisdom (sophia). The canonical scriptures are the church’s best judgment as to which writings are the authentic apostolic witness to the words and works of Jesus, the Christ of God. The pious but scholastic/rationalistic attempt to posit a post hoc doctrine of verbal inspiration on every word in the Bible, including historical, geographic and scientific errors, verges on bibliolatry. This doctrine is an historical aberration used as a crutch in the defense of the truth of the scriptures in the post-Enlightenment and scientific eras of the modern world. It has become a stumbling block (skandalon) in contemporary culture, the bad news of a faulty doctrine rather than the good news of the gospel.

The editor of the Daystar Journal has asked me to unpack this paragraph, so here goes.

Floating in the stream of commentary occasioned by the 500th anniversary of the Reformation was this fascinating factoid: Martin Luther had posted 97 theses on scholasticism a short time before he posted his 95 theses on indulgences in 1517. In view of his later comments on the subject, those 97 theses must have questioned the scholastic scaffolding of theology in the late medieval church. As a Doctor of the church he was immersed in studying and teaching the Bible at the University of Wittenberg and found the scholastic method wanting.

Luther originally taught the Bible in the traditional medieval way, using the writings of the scholastics to interpret it. When the Lord opened his eyes and heart to the gospel of God’s gracious gift of salvation to all believers, he read the Bible in a new way, with the gospel as the key to understanding it. He came to believe that the scholastics were more beholden to Aristotle than to the gospel, that reason is a whore tempting theologians when detached from the gospel. Here he was applying St. Paul’s dictum (1 Cor.1:22-23) “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Greeks.” Paul’s gospel was rejected by wisdom-seeking Greeks on Mars Hill. Human reason, so brilliantly displayed by Greek philosophers, could not conceive of a crucified Jew, a nobody from nowhere who never wrote a book, proclaimed as Savior and Lord, titles claimed by Caesar.

As it turned out, “the foolishness of the cross” triumphed over the wisdom of the Greeks (the last academy in Athens was closed in 529). It wasn’t the end of the classic Greek ways of reasoning by any means. That had already been absorbed by the church fathers who worked with Greek categories to define the faith in the texts of the Three Ecumenical Creeds of the fourth century. But it was the beginning of the scholastic era, where Christian thinkers in monasteries and schools (later universities) worked to combine faith and reason in an overarching worldview. St. Augustine was Godfather of this movement.

The scholastics of the medieval church were an impressive lot who spawned various schools of Christian thought, kept the light of learning burning in the Dark Ages and bridged the divide between the ancient world and the Middle Ages. Luther was trained in the scholastic tradition and found it wanting. His critique that “reason is a whore” was an echo of Jesus’ judgment that his gospel of the Kingdom was new wine which could not be contained in the old wineskins of rabbinic tradition and pharisaic legalism.

Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel transformed him and his theology. In his writings (beginning with The Ninety-five Theses), in his lectures and in his debates with fellow Catholic theologians he called into question the teachings of the church which contradicted or obscured the gospel. At the imperial Diet (Reichstag) in Worms he said “My conscience is bound by the word of God.” For this and for refusing to obey the papal demand that he recant he was judged a heretic by the church and placed under the Ban by the state, subject to execution.

Ever since the Reformation the Bible has been the final authority for the teaching and preaching of the Protestant churches. The Lutheran position is that the Bible has this authority to judge and define the church’s teaching because (in Luther’s words) “it is the cradle in which Christ lies,” reflecting Jesus’ own testimony :“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39). St. Paul taught that the gospel is the non-negotiable center of the Christian faith and life (Galatians 1:8-9) and that the church is built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).

The writings of Luther, Philip Melanchthon and other confessors are a powerful witness of this gospel-centered definition of the faith. The finely-honed scholastic reasoning of a theologian like Erasmus in his treatise, on the Freedom of the Will was rejected by Luther in his response, on the Bondage of the Will because it clashed with God’s promises in the gospel. Luther could live with paradoxes and with unresolved mysteries when interpreting the Bible. He could insist on a literal understanding of a word in Scripture (“This is my body . . . This is my blood”) or he could add a word to Scripture (“by faith alone” in Romans 3:28) so that the words of the text would be understood in the light of the gospel. Half in earnest, half in jest, he could talk of “throwing Jimmy into the fire” when commenting on the Epistle of St. James. He judged the various books of the Bible on the basis of their gospel content and clarity.

Scholasticism continued in the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy as a medium for teaching doctrine with the presupposition that Scriptures are the sole authority. As that time there was already reason to question some of the biblical words relating to history, science or geography, as the unsettling discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler were published and voyages of discovery did not find the ends of a flat earth. The reaction of the Roman and Protestant theologians to the discoveries of the Enlightenment was to devalue this evidence as dangerous pollutants in the stream of knowledge.

Hostility to natural philosophy then became the default position of orthodox theologians. Two centuries later Darwin published On the Origin of Species and the traditional dam of biblical authority in natural science, already leaking, began to crumble. “He who is not with us is against us” became the rallying cry of the defenders of the truth of biblical inerrancy as the Age of Science advanced. The war between science and religion was on.

Missouri pastors are trained to be soldiers in this “battle for the Bible.” They have been trained in the scholastic method from studying dogmatic texts by Franz Pieper and J.T. Mueller. These texts follow the tradition of the fathers of Lutheran Orthodoxy in defining all the words of the Scriptures as inerrant because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The proof texts are there and the logic seems airtight: If God is perfect and without error — and God is the author of every word in the Bible — then the Bible is perfect and without error, even when it speaks on matters of natural science and history.

QED – except for two powerful critiques: 1) God’s non-verbal revelation in nature; and, 2) the power of the gospel to change us and our theology in the service of Christ’s mission. Krister Stendahl reminded us in his study of women in the church that we are neither first century Semites nor sixteenth century Germans. The changeless gospel compels us to express our heritage of Christian doctrine in contemporary terms, and that goes far beyond changing from King James talk to modern English (and some of us remember how hard that was).

Orthodox theology taught us that God reveals himself in nature as well as in Scripture. The discoveries of science since the Reformation/Renaissance are staggering. They are a beautiful coda to the psalmists words: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.” Science was revealing staggering and unimaginable data to the world which upset all kinds of intellectual apple carts, including ours. Human nature being what it is, denial rather than measured praise was the option chosen by many conservative churches, including Missouri.

Science wasn’t contradicting the Bible, although many scientists were. Science revealed truths about nature and history that required a rethinking of the doctrine of the Bible and its interpretation. Change was demanded and the power to change people and ideas comes from the Spirit-filled gospel. In the light of that gospel, Lutheran theologians have joined others in forging a doctrine of the Bible which honors the God who made the Bible the divine/human cradle in which Christ lies, and who gave us the Spirit and the tools to better understand its origins and its message.

God gifted the Missouri Synod with a world-class seminary faculty which was working with these tools to draw fresh insights from the Scriptures while affirming the divine inspiration of its law/gospel message. The scholastic form of the doctrine of the Scripture had served its God-given purpose for many eras. A new, scientific age provided a new and better way to read the Bible. The Missouri Synod tragically chose to reject the use of new, scientific tools of biblical study and to condemn the St. Louis Seminary professors who used them. Like their Lord (and Martin Luther), they were judged as heretics for questioning the traditions of the fathers.

As a result, faithful Christians in the Synod are obliged by conscience to reject the science which does not agree with the Bible, such as the age of the earth and creation as an evolutionary process rather than a six-day action, or to have fellowship with Lutherans who do not agree with this point of view. That’s a heavy cross to bear. The consciences of many thousands of high school and college students have been burdened by it, not to mention the unnumbered laymen and women in science-related careers. Is it the cross of Christ and his gospel or is it the cross of a distorted gospel, the gospel of a Bible whose every word (shades of the Quran) is unquestionably true?

It is also a cross which pastors, professors and teachers in the Missouri Synod are now required to bear. It was only a few years ago that Professor Matthew Becker was removed from Synod’s roster for questioning Synod’s doctrine of an absolutely inerrant Bible. Dissent must be stifled when such an essential doctrine is in question. The Holy Spirit could not possibly be in the dissent, because the Synod has determined once and for all time what the Spirit’s position is. (Luther to Missouri: “Popes and synods [councils] can err!”)

The Lutheran confessional position from the beginning holds that “the gospel is the article [of faith] upon which the church stands or falls.” The inerrantists would have us believe that a Bible which has no scientific or historical errors is essential for defining the gospel. This position elevates the Bible to a position of importance approaching Bibliolatry. (We accuse Roman Catholics of doing something similar with their elevation of Mary, which we call Mariolatry.)

The Synod has effectively created a stumbling stone for honest seekers of the Truth – the Truth which makes us free (John 8:31-32). This insistence on an inerrant Bible in all of its words can become a false gospel when posed as an either/or choice: Bible believers or Bible deniers. It continues to serve as an impediment to serious theological consultation between the Synod and other Lutherans. It is an impermeable wall preventing fellowship with other Lutherans who affirm the Creeds and Confessions.

The orthodox Lutheran fathers and their successors worked with the scholastic tools at hand and the traditional non-scientific worldview to define and interpret the Bible. Their defense of an inerrant Bible was based in part on their strong resistance to new scientific evidence. It took several generations for that evidence to supplement traditional ideas about the natural world and the unfathomable universe. But that time has come. To deny it today is to deny the truth – which even conservative Lutherans don’t want to do.

Are there errors in the Bible? If you mean scientific and historical and geographic references couched in the worldview of the biblical era which don’t jibe with modern science — the answer is an honest and emphatic Yes! What that proves is that God humbled God’s self to reveal his word and work. It’s the pattern of the gospel. He used ordinary human beings and ordinary words and contemporary worldviews in order to reveal who God is and who we are – and that the gospel is the way to salvation. It is an article of faith that the message of the Bible is inspired. We reverence the words, but we worship the Word.

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