LUTHERAN BIBLICAL INERRANCY CONFERENCE
St. Matthew Lutheran Church
2837 East New York Street
Indianapolis, Indiana 46201
August 10 - 11, 1994
Rev. Thomas V. Aadland
"Thus says the LORD: "Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls."
-- Jeremiah 6:16
"the holy scriptures . . . are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus."
-- II Timothy 3:15
Over a century ago, Dr. Ulrik Vilhelm Koren penned his longest essay, "What the Norwegian Synod Has Wanted and Still Wants", 1890. 1
I should like to have entitled this address, "What The AALC Has Wanted and Still Wants." But the conveners of this conference have understandably and rightly purposed to ask whether both tenses of that verb truly apply to every member of our little church body today.
Since this situation is the primary occasion for the present conference, it is this matter that I wish to address today. It is the twofold contention of this paper firstly, that the present controversy is marked by a fundamental confusion regarding two kinds of authority; and that secondly, the documents either approved or endorsed by The AALC are entirely adequate to clarify this confusion and to settle the present controversy if subscription to them be made with integrity. The right foundation has been laid. 2
We must make sure we continue to stand upon it. Therefore, let us review the original foundation of our church body; and do so with the hope that, if there should be any wavering within her, she might be recalled to her confessional identity and evangelical purpose.
TWO PRINCIPLES OR KINDS OF AUTHORITY
In both society and church, the matter of authority is at issue today. The word "authority" may denote different kinds of principle. Accordingly, authority may refer to that which functions as norm regarding conduct or belief, setting limits and even correcting that which deviates from the norm. Authority may also refer to that which functions as cause regarding a certain effect, bringing help and even engendering and nurturing life itself. In a healthy family, a child will come to experience, love and respect both kinds of authority.
For the church, in particular, there are two kinds of authority, which must be continually in operation and held in the highest regard. Where they are confused or denied, the life of the church is placed in jeopardy. What are these kinds of authority and how do they interrelate? They are the Gospel and Scripture; and they relate as summary and source, as causative authority and normative authority, as origin of the church's life and the norm of its doctrine. 3
The Reformation marked a clear and forthright return to both kinds of authority. Luther's remarkable rediscovery of the Gospel, as he lectured both on the Psalms and on Paul's epistle to the Romans, came as he wrestled with the text and through exegetical insight. He broke with the philosophical tradition of his day when he came to understand Paul's words in Romans 1:17 [dikaiosune theou/justitia Dei] to mean not that passive "righteousness of God" by which He justly condemns the sinner but rather that active Righteousness of God [= Christ!], the regnant Power by which He makes us sinners to be accounted righteous. The Gospel is the explosive, dynamic power of God present in a word: the glad tidings that the ungodly are put right with God [justified] by grace alone, through faith alone, and for the sake of Christ alone. This three-part formula, the very heart and substance of our faith, we know to be the material principle of theology: justificatio impii sola gratia sola fidei propter Christum solum. The proclamation of the Gospel is that which has power to bring us to faith. The Gospel is the causative authority of the church's life. Nothing else can avail. For "I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith." It is then the precious Gospel which brings into being that faith by which we believe [fides qua credimus] the promises of Jesus Christ.
But how could Luther and the Reformers of sixteenth-century Saxony stand alone against the prevailing authorities of their day? How could they be sure their faith and doctrine and preaching were true, when the whole world, the church and the state, personified by Leo X and Charles V, stood against them? As over against the onslaught of personal doubt and anxiety, how could they remain steadfast and serviceable instruments in God's hand to confront and to minister to their own generation? The answer is that they found this faith taught in the very Word of God, the Holy Scripture. 4
The demonstration that the Gospel they taught and preached is, in fact, the same as that found taught and proclaimed in Scripture was for the Reformers the objective ground of certainty that their faith was not misplaced. God cannot lie, and His Word cannot err. Since the Gospel runs contrary to human wisdom and carnal desire and our natural expectation, since it alone spells the death of the old Adam, it is a matter of great consequence that our proclamation be continuously and solely based on the Word, on the text of the Bible, lest it be robbed of its depth and power. Thus, there is a second principle bequeathed to us by the Reformation, the formal principle of theology: sola scriptura; in all matters of faith and life, it is the Bible which is the final source and norm of all that which we believe, teach and confess. The Scripture is the normative authority for the church's faith. It establishes and regulates the statement, confession, and proclamation of the Christian faith [fides quae credimus] which we believe.
These two principles, these two kinds of authority, are in fact the selfsame "two pillars of truth" about which Koren wrote; and upon these "two fundamental principles" lie all the teachings for which "old Lutheranism" contended and still contends:
The first principle is the truth that "Holy Scripture is the only sure and perfect rule of our faith and life." The second is "the great truth that Jesus Christ is the way to salvation for all believing souls;" in other words, that a man is justified and saved for Christ's sake by faith alone without the works of the Law.
It is our conviction that these two main pillars of Lutheran, i. e. Biblical, truth are the only powerful weapons against the enemies of God's Kingdom both without and within us. All other weapons "he laughs at, the sly old dragon." But if we are to reap any benefit of them, we must grasp them and make use of them against our own flesh and blood as well as against others. It is of no use to put them down on paper as a heading and still act, write and confess contrary to them. It is of no use to pretend that these two fundamental principles are so well-known and so self-evident that we do not need to dwell on them any further. The one who does this shows thereby that he has not even begun to understand and appropriate them.5
Hence, in this life we may never take it easy, as though our work were finished. The Enemy knows how to propose disarmament of the church of these "only powerful weapons." As we "contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints," we are always fighting along two fronts. Just as it is vital properly to distinguish between Law and Gospel, so it is necessary to distinguish the two kinds of authority represented by Gospel and Scripture. Today, the attack is upon two fronts, by those who have been called, for lack of a better term, "fundamentalistic", and by those whom we may designate "Gospel reductionists" or "neo-orthodox". On the one hand, the normative authority of the Scripture is substituted for the causative authority of the Gospel. On the other hand, the causative authority of the Gospel is substituted for the normative authority of the Sciprture. In either case, the one is reduced to the other. 6
THE CAUSATIVE REDUCED TO THE NORMATIVE
On the radical side of Protestantism have always been the "enthusiasts" [Schwarmergeist] who differed from Luther not only in their understanding of the means of grace in particular, Baptism and the Lord's Supper, but also in their teaching concerning the Spirit and the Word, and in other areas as well. Today, there are those in the self-styled evangelical camp who, in combatting the attacks made upon the truthfulness and the normative authority of the Bible, want to say that it is our assurance that the Bible is absolutely true that later brings us to the conviction that we may place our confidence in Christ. But this loses sight of the very heart of the Scripture, its causative authority as Gospel in being the power of God unto salvation. Dr. Nafzger, executive director of the Commission for Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, included this issue in his keynote address last summer to the 6th General Convention of The AALC:
In their zeal to firm up the authority of Scripture there are those who claim that "divine revelation is the source of all truth, the truth of Christianity included; reason is the instrument for recognizing it; Scripture is its verifying principle; logical consistency is a negative test for truth and coherence a subordinate test" (Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, Vol. I, Word Books, 1976, p. 215). No one who is faithful to our Lutheran doctrinal heritage regarding the centrality of the Gospel as the foundation for faith would describe the authority of Scripture in this way. According to this way of thinking, the Bible functions somewhat like a divinely inspired reference work rather than as the dynamic and living Word of God which condemns its hearers with the full weight of the hammer of God's law for the purpose of comforting them with the promises of the Gospel. An understanding of reason as "the instrument for recognizing" the "truth of Christianity" and the claim that logical consistency is a negative test for truth flies in the face of Luther's explanation of the Third Article.
Such a way of proceeding thinks of a sovereign God's activity toward sinful human beings in categories of reasonable revelation rather than in terms of promise. Holy Scripture is regarded as the form in which God's revelation comes to us, and faith is perceived as the acceptance of this revelation. According to this view, the cause of faith is linked directly to the veracity of Scripture, which becomes the "watershed doctrine" on which the Christian religion stands or falls. Confessional Lutheranism, on the contrary, regards Scripture as the source, rule and norm for the preaching of the Gospel in all its articles and for the administration of the sacraments, the means through which the Holy Spirit works to create faith. Accordingly, Jesus Christ, and not the Bible as God's special revelation is the object of faith.
There are a number of contemporary slogans and emphases which tend to undermine this causative authority of Scripture by attributing, implicitly at least, to human beings themselves rather than to the Gospel, the power to create faith:
1. "If you will surrender your life to Christ, God will forgive your sins."
2. "Put Jesus on the throne of your life."
3. "Make a decision for Christ."
Closely related to such slogans is the tendency in some circles to try to distinguish between "carnal Christians" and "Spirit-filled Christians," or between "believers" and "disciples." Others attempt to find "signs" that confirm a person's commitment to Christ in extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, visions, or healings rather than in the objective promises of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.
Perhaps the most insidious form of compromising the causative authority of Scripture is the temptation to think that it is concern for the purity of the Word which makes us right with God, rather than solely the merits of Jesus Christ alone. When the causative authority of Scripture is compromised, the Gospel is changed into Law. Sanctification is confused with justification. Sinners are thrown back onto their own resources to get right with God, and the end result is that they are led either to self-righteous pride or to despair.7
Now, of course, one is right to defend the Scriptures as truthful in all that they touch. And there is much of apologetic value in what the evangelicals write by way of showing this. But it is quite wrong to imply that one makes this effort rationalistically and thereby comes of oneself to faith.
THE NORMATIVE REDUCED TO THE CAUSATIVE
Of much more immediate concern on the occasion of this conference, concerned as it is for the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, is the second front on which we fight, that front as over against those who would reduce the normative authority of Scripture to the causative authority of the Gospel, or of its message, or to that which is addressed in the Lutheran Confessions. Here we are met by those sometimes broadly designated as "neo-orthodox". The label is sometimes misleading. Following the teachings of Karl Barth and others, the attempt is made to be "orthodox" in testimony to the Lord of the church, perhaps even boldly standing against the Hitlers and other anti-christs of the day. But this attempt is made in a "new" way, and this way involves the assertion that testimony to Christ can be maintained in spite of the conclusion that the biblical text is filled with error and contradiction and outmoded concepts, ideas and traces of legend and myth. It is held that it does not matter if one questions this or that particular teaching or detail of occurence, so long as the Gospel is retained. Sometimes, reference is made by those styled "neo-Lutheran" at this point to the satis est of the Augsburg Confession VII: "For the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments."
Clearly, this is a reduction or narrowing of that which pertains to the Gospel and to Christ. As such, we may call this position "Gospel-reductionism". The manner in which the normative authority of the Scripture has been attacked is sometimes blatant, and easily recognized, and sometimes very subtle, and more difficult to be discerned by all Christian people.
In the last decades of the eighteenth century, during the period of the Enlightenment, the presumptuous use of human reason as adequate to determine any possibility, led some scientists and theologians to hold that nature was a closed system of cause and effect and that the occurence of the miraculous was by definition impossible. The period of neology challenged the orthodoxy of that time. Following the reaction of pietism, nineteenth century liberalism proclaimed "the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man," a caricature of Christianity in which "a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." 8
For some, the work of Barth and Rudolf Bultmann could be seen as a breath of fresh air that swept away such milk-toast theology, especially during the aftermath of the First World War. Here, the kerygma, or unique proclamation of the New Testament, was held as essential to the faith and life of the church. But for Bultmann, this kerygma was hidden away as the kernel of wheat inside the husk. As chaplain in the trenches of Germany during the First World War, he believed the age of the wireless and long-distance communication invalidated the world-view of the Bible, clothed as it was, he maintained, in ancient mythology. The Bible had to be "demythologized", the Gospel shed of its old garb, for it to be believed. In its place, Bultmann put the call to authentic existence as sounded by a Martin Heidegger, who had himself seen his philosophy personified by none other than Adolf Hitler!
What few realize is that this had its own consequence. Professor Fritz Buri of the University of Basel endorsed Bultmann's proposals for existential interpretation and demythologizing of the New Testament, but thought that Bultmann did not go far enough. Why should we stop with the concept of a personal God addressing humanity through the kerygma? Buri called for "dekerygmatizing" the New Testament and was left with the radical call to obedience (but obedience to whom?) and human ethics. 9
So the questioning its normative authority and the imputing of error to Scripture, even when made in the name of the Gospel, has led to the worse perversion of all, the turning of that precious and divinely authored Gospel into a merely human law. Such are the gross attacks on the inerrancy of Scripture with which we are all too familiar. But others are more subtle. These are made especially by those who speak of inerrancy but who do not apply this in a straightforward manner to the text of Scripture itself.
So the first president of what was formerly The ALC, Dr. Fredrik A. Schiotz, in order to settle doctrinal controversy within the synod, attempted to apply the word "inerrant" in the confessional paragraph of synod's constitution to the "message" contained therein. This made nonsense of what was intended. Similarly, when our Lord affirmed "the Scripture cannot be broken", this refers simply to a particular text, the canon, and not to anything derivative of it.
It raises justifiable concern when anyone should appear to confess "inerrancy" but then qualifies its meaning, so that it no longer has a simple reference to the very words of the Bible "in every passing detail." All such attempts to reduce the normative authority of the Scripture, however subtle, were excluded by The AALC from its position when it unanimously adopted A Statement of Biblical and Confessional Principles. For example, the church body, in adopting it, states, "We reject . . . 3. That the historicity or facticity of certain Biblical accounts (such as the Flood or the Fall) may be questioned, provided this does not distort the Gospel" and "We reject . . . 2. That the Scriptures are inerrant only in matters pertaining directly to the Gospel message of salvation." 10
THE OUTER CLARITY OF THE SCRIPTURE
In our struggles today, we may learn from those faithful saints in the past who fought the good fight of the faith. When he stood in heated controversy with Erasmus of Rotterdam, easily the most highly regarded humanist scholar of his day, Luther rested his argument not upon his private conviction but only upon the text of the Bible. In the debate concerning The Bondage of the Will [De servo arbitrio], Luther would not permit Erasmus to complain that the matter was not clearly addressed in Scripture nor that we must remain skeptical about such a vital matter as conversion and God's power exercised in achieving it. "The Holy Spirit is no skeptic," he said, "and God delights in assertions." In considering the testimony of the prophets in the Old Testament scriptures, and that the righteousness of faith is witnessed to therein by the Law and the Prophets [Romans 3:21], Luther asks,
Now, what sort of witness is it if it is obscure: But in all his epistles Paul represents the gospel as a word of light, a gospel of glory, and he does this explicitly and at length in II Corinthians, chapters 3 and 4, where he argues magnificently about the glory of both Moses and Christ. Peter, too, says in II Peter 1[:19]: "We have the very sure word of prophecy, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place." Here Peter makes the Word of God a shining lamp and all else darkness; and do we want to make obscurity and darkness of the Word? Christ so often calls himself the light of the world [John 8:12; 9:5; etc.] and John the Baptist a burning and shining lamp [John 5:35], not because of the holiness of their lives, but without a doubt because of the Word. So in Thessalonians [Philippians is obviously meant], Paul calls them shining lights in the world because (he says): "You hold fast the word of life" [Phil. 2:16]; for life without the Word is uncertain and obscure.11
Luther objects, "those who deny that the Scriptures are quite clear and plain leave us nothing but darkness." Notice his particular care. He remonstrates with Erasmus:
But here you will say, "All this is nothing to me; I do not say that the Scriptures are obscure in all parts (for who would be so crazy?), but only in this and similar parts." I reply: neither do I say these things in opposition to you only, but in opposition to all who think as you do; moreover, in opposition to you I say with respect to the whole Scripture, I will not have any part of it called obscure. What we have cited from Peter holds good here, that the Word of God is for us "a lamp shining in a dark place" [II Peter 1:19]. But if part of this lamp does not shine, it will be a part of the dark place rather than of the lamp itself. Christ has not so enlightened us as deliberately to leave some part of his Word obscure while commanding us to give heed to it, for he commands us in vain to give heed if it does not give light.12
This was the same attitude and conviction Luther displayed earlier in his career as he lectured on Paul's epistle to the Romans. In referring to what the Lord says in Matthew 4:4, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God," he asks, "But why does Christ say 'every word'? Because if you fail to believe even one word, you no longer are living in the Word of God. For the whole Christ is in every word and wholly in each individual word. When He is denied, therefore, in one word, He is totally denied, for He is in every word." And in concluding the section:
But you ask: If denial is so great that having denied in one point, a person has denied in all, why is not the acceptance of equal force, so that when one believes in one point, he believes in all? The answer is that the good is perfect and simple, and thus it is destroyed by one denial. But it is not established by the confession of one thing, unless it be one complete confession without any denial. For two contrary things cannot stand in regard to the same subject. And God wants to have all things pure and undefiled. But denial is a stain, and so it renders a confession unclean. 13
SCRIPTURE IN ALL ITS FULLNESS IN EVERY PASSING DETAIL
Thus, we stand with Luther, who would not tolerate any impugning of error or darkness to the text of the Bible. It is true there are apparent difficulties, which need not derail us, if we have the proper childlike attitude that its meaning will eventually become clear to us who must labor with our own limited understanding. We are fortunate to have so many examples of faithful exegetes who display such an attitude. 14
The doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture implies that no teaching derived from the text is insignificant or inconsequential.
It pleases God to make His Word particular. Whenever God speaks, He speaks truly, even in what may appear to our judgment to be passing detail, both in words of command and in words of promise, whether in historical narrative, or praise of His handiwork in creation.
There is no place where we may tolerate error and disagree with the Scriptures.
Consider God's promise, for example, to Abraham [Genesis 18:14]: "this time next spring, Sarah will have a son." Or to Jesse. Why David? Why not the other elder brothers? Or His command to Saul regarding the Amalekites [I Samuel 15]. Why "all"? Why not allow freedom in worship according to our own desire? Yet the spirit of rationalizing and half-hearted repentance is seen in him. Or consider the details of the Old Testament Gospel promises, as in Micah 5:2. Why Bethlehem? Why not Jerusalem?
In short, we must either determine to be captive to the Word of God or permit ourselves to be slaves of human opinion.
When one serves on a church call committee, one looks not merely for a fellow Christian, nor simply for one who subscribes to the Lutheran confessions. One searches diligently for one who will commit himself to holding up the portrait of the living Christ without allowing his own personality to come between, so that not even as much as a little finger is seen. But this portrait is painted in the Scriptures. Such a pastor, therefore, will make it his aim to teach the whole counsel of God without denial of its least detail.
Similarly, when one wishes to call a professor to teach at a theological seminary, one is concerned not simply about those points of doctrine maintained by the candidate, still less that he is simply a Christian or a confessional Lutheran. Rather, one looks to see how aptly this teacher can set forth the whole counsel of God. For doctrine is nothing more nor nothing less than that which Scripture teaches.
To question a candidate's view of biblical authority is not in itself a lack of love for one's neighbor. Rather, it is just here that is displayed the quality of one's own love for God, for it is impossible to love God without loving His Word, just as surely it is impossible to love the neighbor properly without loving God. So Luther:
In their books and writings the sacramentarians have pestered us with "love." They say to us, "You Wittenbergers have no love." But if one asks, "What is love?" we are told that it means to be united in doctrine and to stop religious controversies. Yes, do you hear? There are two tables [of the Decalogue], the first and the second. Love belongs in the second table. It's superior to all other works there. On the other hand, [in the first table] it is commanded: "Fear God. Listen to His Word." The sacramentarians don't bother with this. "He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me" [Matt. 10:37], said Christ. You should have love for your parents, for your children. Love, love! Be good to your father and mother! However, "he who loves them more than Me..." When this "Me" comes, love stops. Accordingly I'm glad to be called obstinate, proud, headstrong, uncharitable, and whatever else they call me. Just so I'm not a participant [in their doctrine]. God keep me from that! 15
THE ABIDING PURPOSE
God has undertaken the amazing act of saving us unworthy sinners. He wills to do this through the Gospel, and this Gospel has been entrusted to us through His Scripture. We may undertake this mission of seeking to win the lost for Christ precisely because that Word is sure. The normative and causative authorities must be distinguished, to be sure. But they must also be seen together as God has joined them for His purpose.
During the summer of 1964, my paternal grandfather lay dying of pancreatic cancer at Lutheran Deaconness Hospital in Minneapolis. His hands held tightly a large-letter edition of the New Testament. On his lips was repeated again and again the name of his Savior. For a thirteen-year-old youth, in the midst of witnessing the ending to an earthly tabernacle, with all the tears of our present sorrow, there could be no better picture of the unity of Gospel and Scripture in the abiding purpose of the heart of God.
1 In the original Norwegian title ["Hvad den norske synode har villet og fremdeles vil"] the verb "villet" has the connotation also of "contended for" or "determined to hold to". Cf. Faith of Our Fathers, 1853-1953 (Lutheran Synod Book Company: Mankato, 1953), p. 5, fn., a copy of which was generously given the author by the president of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Rev. George Orvick.
2 In what is written here, the relevant specific documents which lie at the foundation of The AALC are A Statement of Biblical and Confessional Principles [SBCP] -- adopted unanimously by the 4th General Convention of The AALC, June 20-23, 1991, and Gospel and Scripture: The Interrelationship of the Material and Formal Principles in Lutheran Theology [GS] -- endorsed unanimously by the Association Council, January 29-30, 1990 [cf. Evangel, No. 20, p. 1].
3 The apostle Peter speaks of both kinds of authority in his epistles -- the causative authority of the Gospel in I Peter 1:22-25; and the normative authority of the Scripture in II Peter 1:19-20.
4 Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann has done a fine work of service to the Church in demonstrating how in the Latin and German editions of the Augsburg Confession, the term Gottes Wort was many times translated by sacra scriptura and Heilige Schrift by verbum Dei. There could be no more convincing proof that for the confessors the two terms, Holy Scripture and Word of God, were virtually interchangeable. See his Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Lutheran Confessions (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1968), p. 34.
5 Koren, op. cit., p. 50.
6 Reference should be made here to the keynote address at the 6th General Convention of The AALC, given by Dr. Samuel H. Nafzger, "Gospel Alone -- Scripture Alone: Can We Say Both?", June 17, 1993. Copies may be available from The AALC National Office, 10800 Lyndale Avenue South, Suite 120, Minneapolis, MN 55420-5614.
7 Ibid., pp. 4-6.
8 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Harper and Row: New York, 1938), p. 193.
9 John Macquarrie, Twentieth Century Religious Thought: The Frontiers of Philosophy and Theology, 1900-1960 (Harper and Row: New York, 1963), p. 365.
10 SBCP, IV C, p. 2, and IV F, p. 3.
11 Luther's Works, Vol. XXXIII, ed. by Philip S. Watson (Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1972), pp. 92- 93.
12 Ibid., pp. 94-95.
13 Luther's Works, Vol. XXV, ed. by Hilton C. Oswald (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1972), pp. 238-239.
14 We may mention, in passing, the scholarly New Testament commentator R. C. H. Lenski (1864- 1936) and the great lexicographer W. F. Arndt (1880-1957).
15 Luther's Works, Vol. LIV, ed. by Theodore G. Tappert (Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1967), pp. 463- 464.