Exegesis the Lutheran Way

Excerpted from The Form and Meaning of the Fall Narrative by Norman C. Habel (1965)


Our moorings are biblical and our bearings are Lutheran. This means that we affirm certain presuppositions and follow certain basic principles of interpretation. In brief, these presuppositions and principles are as follows:


1.  The approach of the Lutheran exegete is governed by his faith in Jesus Christ, in whose name he has been baptized, and by whom he has been made righteous in God’s sight. This faith is anchored in the Gospel, the scandalous news that Jesus Christ died and rose again to execute God’s plan of redemption for sinful mankind.


2.  In the interpretation of Scripture, the Lutheran exegete must relate all of Scripture to its center, viz., solus Christus, that is, the message of justification by grace propter Christum [on account of Christ] through faith.


3.  In applying this principle the Lutheran exegete must follow the rule that “Scripture interprets Scripture” (Scriptura Scripturam interpretatur). Understood in its primary sense this rule means that the clear passages of Scripture, namely those which display the teaching of justification by grace through faith in all its force and glory, must be used to interpret and evaluate those portions of Scripture where this truth is obscure. In short, the right distinction between Law and Gospel must be rigorously maintained in all biblical exegesis (Apology of the Augsburg Confession IV 5).


4.  The Lutheran exegete also follows the norm that “the Old Testament must be interpreted in the light of the New Testament,” that is, in the light of Christ’s advent as the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan of salvation. The ultimate context of the Old Testament is the New Testament . This principle is abused, however, when we insist that that New Testament interpretation or application of a given Old Testament passage is always the only meaning which God intends us to discover in that Old Testament passage.


5.  The Lutheran exegete must assume an attitude of subservience to the Scriptures as the inspired word of the living God which is designed to lead men to salvation. In so doing the exegete will always seek to determine the message which God intends to communicate in any given passage.


6.  By seeking to ascertain the intended sense of a given passage the Lutheran exegete is applying the principle sensus literalis unus est. The Latin formula stands in antithesis to the medieval method of discerning the fourfold meaning of each passage of Scripture. Sensus literalis has reference to the God-intended rather than surface meaning (sensus literae) of the biblical text.


7.  When attempting to determine the intended sense of a given text of Scripture the Lutheran exegete must employ all the tools at his disposal to discover the character or nature of the text with which he is dealing . In this task the evidence of the text itself must be taken into account and the analogy of comparable texts given due consideration. If this is done the exegete will not hastily jump to the conclusion that a given text is a chronicle, a law code, a parable, or any other kind of literature, without sufficient evidence.


8.  Finally the Lutheran exegete must pay special attention to the usus loquendi of the biblical writer, that is, he must try to ascertain what the terms, concepts, imagery, forms, etc., of a given text meant in the culture and specific historical situation of the audience to which the passage was originally addressed. God means to be understood and so he employs that living language or medium of expression which can be readily grasped by the original audience to which the speaker or writer addressed his message. In short, the exegete must attempt to become a part of the audience which the inspired biblical author addressed himself and to hear that writer speaking on his own terms, as far as this is humanly possible.


Scripture and Faith: The Lutheran View

By Hermann Sasse

It may happen that an un-Lutheran faith seizes control of the forms of the Lutheran church and that then this church is only externally a Lutheran church.  This indicates the danger which threatens every Lutheran church at all times.  Missouri is no exception to the rule.

This danger becomes visible in the case of a notable shift of emphasis which can be observed in the theology of the Missouri Synod.  …Dr. P. E. Kretzmann begins his book, The Foundations Must Stand! The Inspiration of the Bible and Related Questions (St. Louis, 1936) with a statement on the importance of the doctrine of Inspiration of the Holy Scripture:

We commonly refer to the doctrine of justification by faith alone as the central doctrine of the Christian religion, the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae.  But even this fundamental truth of personal faith is not a matter of subjective certainty.  Rather, it depends rather, as do all other articles of faith, on the objective certainty of the Word of God as a whole and in all its parts.  In this respect the doctrine of Inspiration of the Bible is fundamental for the entire corpus doctrinae (p. 3).

We may assume that any orthodox Presbyterian, Baptist, or Adventists could have written these sentences in precisely this manner.  It is, however, our conviction that they can be brought into harmony neither with the theology of Luther nor with the teaching of the Confessions.  Reformed Fundamentalism makes the relationship to Christ depend on the relationship to the Bible, as Catholicism makes it depend on the relationship to the church.  This is a wrong deduction from the fact that without the Scripture or the oral Word which is based upon the Scripture we would know nothing of Christ.  The faith of the Lutheran church in the Scripture is based on her faith in Christ.  It is basically faith in Christ, because the Bible, and this is true of the whole Bible, is testimony concerning Christ.  Our faith in the Bible as the infallible Word of God is therefore an entirely different faith from the faith of Fundamentalism in the Bible, which at least logically and factually precedes faith in Christ.  The conviction that the Scripture from beginning to end is inspired and therefore the inerrant Word of God, whose statements can be trusted absolutely, is not necessarily Christian faith.  The orthodox rabbis have the same faith with respect to the Old Testament.  The “Christadelphians,” “Jehovah’s Witnesses” and other heretics who deny the true deity of the Son and therefore also the true deity of the Holy Spirit, who therefore do not even know what inspiration in the biblical and Christian sense is (Mt 10:20; Jn 16:13ff.), but make out of the Scripture a book of oracles after the fashion of the heathen sibyls, likewise teach the plenary inspiration and the absolute inerrancy of the Scripture, which shows plainly that this doctrine is not an absolute defense against false doctrine.  Least of all does it guard against unbelief.  On the contrary!  As it was but a brief step from the Orthodoxy of a Hollaz to the Rationalism of a Semler, so also there is but one step from Fundamentalism to unbelief.  One can only respect the seriousness with which earnest Reformed Christians desire to hold to the authority of Scripture.  But one must also see the tragic reality when human opinions, for instance, concerning the age of the earth, are proclaimed as divinely revealed truths, with the result that with these opinions the authority of the Scripture collapses.  What kind of Christianity is that which can be refuted by a photograph of the depths of space, or by the facts—(not theories)—of radioactivity!  No, Luther’s mighty faith in the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God has nothing in common with this understanding of the Scripture current in Fundamentalism.  One seeks for it in vain in the Lutheran confessional writings.

If the theologians of the Missouri Synod believed that it was necessary to draw up an explicit doctrine of the Holy Scripture, its inspiration and inerrancy, which goes beyond the brief sentences of the Lutheran Confession, in order to oppose the apostasy from the Word of God which was taking place also in Lutheran churches this must be considered a wholly legitimate undertaking.  This must be granted, and it is to be regretted that the necessity of such formulation of doctrine was not recognized everywhere.  But then Missouri should have formulated a truly Lutheran doctrine of the Holy Scripture, a doctrine which is in complete harmony with the Confession and which takes seriously the principle of the Formula of Concord, that Luther is the foremost teacher of the church of the Augsburg Confession.  Instead, the fathers of the Missouri Synod simply took over the doctrine of the later Orthodoxy (Baier, Quenstedt) concerning the Scripture, without even asking themselves the question, whether this doctrine is Lutheran, and whether it can be brought into harmony with the Confession.  One need not take this amiss if one considers with what difficulty the fathers of the Lutheran revival also in Germany had to work their way back to the Lutheran doctrine.  They were not yet able to see what a deep chasm exists between the understanding of revelation with Luther as compared with the Orthodoxy of the seventeenth century.  Today this is different.

Historical research in Lutheran theology has shown how deeply Orthodoxy was influenced by the same Aristotelian philosophy which Luther had banished from dogmatics.  We know now that Orthodoxy is a very similar synthesis of the natural (reason) and the supernatural (revelation) knowledge of God as was the scholasticism of the Middle Ages.

Excerpted from “Confession and Theology in the Missouri Synod” (1951), Scripture and the Church: Selected Essays of Hermann Sasse (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary, 1995), 214-217.

Readers my also be interested in A. C. Piepkorn’s essay, “What Does Inerrancy Mean?”

A Brief Introduction to sola scriptura

By Dr Hans Wiersma

Sola Scriptura (Latin for “scripture alone”) is one of three or four—or five or six—“solas” that attempt to evoke the basic principles of Lutheran theology (or even Protestant Theology).[1] No matter how many solas you care to list, it would be difficult to deny that Sola Scriptura is an essential component of the Lutheran DNA.

Consider, for instance, the words of Jacob Andreae—words that were written as part of an attempt to unify “second generation Lutherans” in the late 1570s:  “We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments alone…Other writings of ancient or contemporary teachers, whatever their names may be, shall not be regarded as equal to Holy Scripture, but all of them together shall be subjected to it…”[2]

In other words, if you can’t back it up with scripture, then it probably shouldn’t be part of the Christian faith and life.

The slogan Sola Scriptura developed out of the perception that certain Christian teachings and practices—especially some teachings and practices formulated during the medieval period of Western Christianity—had little or no Biblical basis.

For instance, in the 95 Theses of 1517, Martin Luther famously challenged the effectiveness of the “indulgences” granted by the pope.  Soon afterward, Luther and other reformers were not merely challenging the effectiveness of indulgences, but the entire system from which indulgences derived.  Centuries old traditions regarding Purgatory, the Treasury of Merits, and the Intercessions of the Saints were brought into question and finally discarded by reformers who discerned that such traditions were not supported by Holy Scripture. (Of course, the Roman Catholic Church drew upon and continues to draw upon scripture to support such traditions.)

On the other hand Sola Scriptura in Lutheran form is not against tradition per se.  While some brands of Christianity might insist that if it’s not in the Bible then it’s not Christian, Lutheran theology understands that a tradition is allowable when (a) it is not contradicted by scripture, (b) it serves a purpose that is scriptural, and (c) it is not enforced as a pre-condition for Christian unity.

It is nonetheless possible to assert the principle of Sola Scriptura in a manner similar to the bumper sticker that says: “The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It.”  However, a Lutheran theological approach resists simplification.  For Lutheran Christians, reading the Bible does not mean setting aside critical thinking skills.  Instead, the Lutheran understanding of Sola Scriptura includes certain rules for thought:

Understand that the Bible Is the Manger in Which Christ is Laid. The Bible (in both its Testaments) was inspired to reveal the crucified and Risen Jesus Christ, the one sent from God to justify and save the ungodly.  To understand that the Bible’s primary purpose is something other than the revelation of Jesus Christ (for instance, to understand that the Bible is primarily a book of rules for better living) is decidedly un-Lutheran.  Luther put a point on it when he wrote that if the Scriptures are quoted “against Christ,” then we should “urge Christ against Scripture.”[3]

Be aware that Some Books of the Bible are More Central than Other Books of the Bible. Luther saw that some Bible books were better at revealing Christ and his work than others.  In an introduction to one of his Bible translations, Luther explained that John’s Gospel, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter contained all one needed to know about Christ.  On the other hand, the Book of James is “really an epistle of straw, when compared with these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”[4]

Recognize that Scripture Interprets Scripture. The Bible says a lot of things.  And, taken out of context, a Bible verse or passage can be used to support just about any crackpot notion.  On the other hand, the Lutheran approach understands that Scripture’s message is, generally speaking, easily apprehended.  When one encounters seemingly unclear or confusing Bible passages, then those passages need to be interpreted in light of (a) the clear passages and (b) the Bible’s overall witness to a gracious God who justifies the ungodly on account of Christ.

When reading and hearing the Word of God, Discern Law and Gospel. The art of discerning Law and Gospel, Command and Promise, is essential to an understanding of Sola Scriptura Lutheran-style.  “The understanding of nearly all scripture and all theology depends upon the correct recognition of law and gospel.”[5] It is, of course, possible to contend for the principle of Sola Scriptura but at the same time interpret and proclaim scripture incorrectly.  Most of the religious mischief and harm done in the name of Holy Scripture can be attributed to the improper discernment of law and gospel.  For more on the discernment of Law and Gospel, see “A Brief Introduction to Law and Gospel” on this website.

[1] Along with Sola Scriptura, two other solas are commonly identified as core Lutheran tenets:  Sola Gratia (“grace alone”) and Sola Fide (“faith alone”).  In addition—in order that the object, author, and finisher of Christian faith receives proper recognition—Solus Christus (“Christ alone”) is often included in the enumeration of solas.  Furthermore, those who want to emphasize the importance of God’s “Word Alone” will have Solo Verbo in mind.  And in some of the more pious lists of solas, one might even find Soli Deo Gloria (“to God alone the glory”).

[2] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000) 486.

[3] LW 34:112.

[4] LW 35:395.

[5] WA 7:502.  My translation.

Piepkorn on Scriptural Inerrancy

We make available here an article, “What Does ‘Inerrancy’ Mean?” by Arthur Carl Piepkorn (1907-1973), one of the more significant 20th-century Lutheran theologians in America.  In this article Piepkorn usefully traces the genealogy of the term ‘inerrancy’ and its use by the Lutheran scholastics.  He then presents an overview of the difficulties that the concept poses before finally moving to a theological consideration of it.  The piece was originally published in Concordia Theological Monthly 36:8 (September 1965), pp. 577-593.

Reflections on Romans 8:31–39

By Helmut Koester

At the celebration of the 50th anniversary of my ordination  (2006)

Ever since I was a teenager, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans had a special attraction for me. For my confirmation in 1942 I chose Romans 1:16—“I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ”—as my biblical verse. It was also at that time that I decided to become a Lutheran minister. Then, in the third year of World War II, I lived in a world of confusion and chaos. Confusion, because of the conflict between the demands of my country and faithfulness to Christ. Chaos, because of the war and the disturbances it brought to our lives, though little did I know the dimensions of the chaos into which Hitler had been leading Germany. The immensity of that chaos became clear only in the following years through nights filled with fear during bombing attacks, service in the German army, months in British and American POW camps, through the devastating revelations of the horrors of the Nazi government, and through years of studying at the university with never enough to eat and rarely enough fuel to protect us from bitterly cold winters.

Today, we like to think that we can live comfortably in a secure, orderly and just world. But at this very time not only those who have access to international news and know about the horrors of torture and about prisoners of conscience all over the world, but also many others in this country have realized that even our American government can lead us and others into chaos. But, whether or not we knew it, chaos has always been at the door, is always threatening, as is always fed by the irresponsible acts of human beings, who torture people, push them into poverty, abuse and pollute natural resources, and start wars in order to enhance national power and pride—not to speak of the very evident fact that we are all human beings threatened by misfortune, disease, and eventually by death.

The apostle Paul was a realist. He saw life as threatened by powers beyond human control. He saw even all creation longing for wholeness and salvation. Whatever these powers, manmade or beyond human control, what is there that can save us, make us whole, confident, hopeful and joyful? For Paul, there is only one thing: and that is the love of God that has been revealed through the giving of God’s Son, who died for all human beings. Nothing is said here about virtue and morality, or about law and judgment, or about power and strength.

What can we embrace to strengthen our life so that we can be free from fearing the powers of chaos and death? It is not national power and armies, not morality and virtue, not family values, not even advancement of medical research—there is only the love of God. It is not a sentimental inclination of the divine, but it is God’s action in the giving of the Son into a chaotic world. It is God’s own dangerous adventure to demonstrate that love is the only force that can liberate from the powers of chaos and overcome our fear. “If God is for us, who will be against us?” The very center of God’s love is Christ, “whom God gave up for us.”  Only love can fight the powers of chaos. Thus love must become our own dangerous adventure to combat the threatening and overwhelming powers chaos. Loving each other and loving others in spite of their different sexual, political, and religious orientations. Only in this way can we be assured that we are able to fight the powers of chaos and be secure in Christ Jesus, embracing each other and welcoming all others into the love of God in Christ. If we stay in this love, nothing can separate us from the God, whose action is love.

Lutheranism and Tradition

Reception of Doctrine as a Methodological Issue in Early Lutheranism

Piotr J. Malysz

(The following is an excerpt from a much larger article dealing with the question of doctrinal reception in Lutheranism.  The footnotes and some of the references have been omitted here.)

1. Practice and doctrine

In the writings of the sixteenth-century Lutherans, terms denoting reception appear in two sharply distinguished, though interrelated, senses: a passive and an active one.  In the first sense, they refer to the material dimension of reception, namely, that which is received.  In this sense, reception generally connotes restoration and is regarded in an overwhelmingly positive manner.  Although a further distinction is made here between the content of the faith and ecclesiastical practice, both are considered from the perspective of their point of origin: that which is eventually received is always evaluated in terms of what was first passed on.  Apostolic belief and practice, as expressed in the Scriptures, are uniformly privileged – but this is done in different ways.

Since much of the early Lutheran protest centred on practical abuses (indulgences, the trade in private masses, fasts, monastic vows, etc.), let us look at the reception of practice first.  For example, defending the Lutherans’ restoration of the Mass under both kinds to the laity, Melanchthon shows that that was what Paul received (accepisse) from Jesus and what he then passed on (Ap XXII.3).  Usually words such as command (mandatum) or testimony (testimonium) are employed to designate this material terminus a quo of reception.  The absence of explicit scriptural mandate does not necessarily disqualify a practice.  Apostolic practices did become more elaborate, while new practices were introduced, in the course of the church’s history.  Melanchthon is at pains to emphasise that the Lutherans “cherish the useful and ancient ordinances, especially when they contain a discipline by which it is profitable to educate and teach common folk and ignorant” (Ap VII/VIII.33).

It is at this point that doctrine is brought into the equation.  The Lutheran protest against practical abuses quickly escalated into full-fledged doctrinal controversy.  Practice, though distinct from doctrine, is never isolated from doctrine – practices can either promote the gospel or obscure it.  Therefore, what disqualifies a non-scriptural practice (e.g., masses for the dead) is when its attendant beliefs (purgatory) are, in the words of Luther, “against the chief article that Christ alone (and not human works) is to help souls.”  All this means that, while humans may, and indeed will need to, institute rites and practices (provided they do not obscure the gospel), no human may establish articles of faith, not even “on the basis of the holy Fathers’ works or words” if they lack scriptural support (Smalcald Articles II.II.12-13).  The content of the faith must remain invariant, the same at any point of its transmission as at the terminus a quo.

By the time of the Formula of Concord, this understanding of doctrine will become enshrined in the elevation of the scriptures to the status of “the only true guiding principle, according to which all teachers and teaching [and, by extension, practices] are to be judged and evaluated.”  Interestingly, other than this brief remark in the Formula’s preface, none of the Lutheran confessions devotes a separate article to Holy Scripture.  This will change within a generation.  Theologians, such as Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) in his monumental Loci communes theologici, will feel compelled to develop a complex doctrine of the perfection of Holy Writ, which, as “the Word of God … reduced to writing in accordance with his will” (Gerhard 1:502), must be both clear and exhaustive in all matters pertaining to salvation.  On the basis of Scripture’s perfection, Gerhard can then argue, on the one hand, for the necessary presence of vowel pointing in the original Hebrew text, and, on the other, against any “unwritten traditions,” by which he understands doctrines without scriptural mandate.

2. The process of transmission

Besides beliefs and practices, the Lutherans employed the term reception also to designate the transmission process.  In contrast to the material sense, the term’s emotive value in this second sense is highly ambiguous.  On the one hand, it was through the much-vilified Church of Rome that the Lutherans “received [haben wir freilich alles vom Bapst] … the true holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar, the true keys to the forgiveness of sins, the true office of the ministry, the true catechism in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the articles of the creed,” as Luther admits in his treatise Concerning Rebaptism (1528), “indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found [under the Papacy] and has come to us from this source” (LW 40:231-32).  On the other hand, these realities, the Lutherans insisted, had become obscured through numerous additional practices and opinions which the papal church had illicitly made into laws and articles of faith.  For this reason, Luther can also maintain, in Against Hanswurst (1541), that both the Papacy and the Lutheran churches derive from the ancient church, in that they both share the same true articles of faith and apostolic practices.  With this material aspect of reception in mind, he then adds: “we have received [empfangen] everything from the church before you (not from you),” and accuses the Papacy of perverting this common heritage and thus becoming an “erring, apostate, whorelike church” (LW 41:207).

The ambivalence with which the Lutherans viewed the transmission process was further complicated by the frequent attacks of their Papist opponents, who claimed that the Lutheran doctrines were innovations without precedent in the church’s teaching.  Faced with this charge, the Lutherans sought to establish their credentials as the true church by taking a more positive approach to the witness of the church’s tradition.  In the Bondage of the Will (1525), Luther declared emphatically, “The authority of the Fathers is of no consequence … for Christ is a higher authority than the Fathers” (LW 33:58, translation altered).  A decade later, in On the Councils and the Church (1539), he presents a more nuanced argument.  First of all, he emphasises that the fathers were all students of Scripture, and that no single father was able to exhaust the richness of the Scriptures and give an account of the entirety of Christian doctrine contained therein (although Augustine did come close).  In support Luther cites Augustine’s statement from De Trinitate that his writings are not to be regarded in the same manner as the Scriptures.  Second, the fathers frequently contradict each other and cannot, therefore, be appealed to without first and foremost being subjected to scriptural scrutiny.  In this connection, Luther claims that he actually knows the fathers better than his papal opponents who are “woefully at variance … with the will of the councils and the fathers” (LW 41:14).  He does admit that both the parties cull from the fathers’ writings what is convenient to them but maintains that, whereas the papists do so unscripturally to enhance papal power, the Lutherans use the fathers as that which they intended to be, namely, witnesses to the gospel, and in the way they intended to be used, that is, in conjunction with Scripture.  This becomes the general principle underlying the Lutheran approach to the fathers.  In On the Councils Luther points to Cyprian as an example of both scriptural and counter-scriptural teaching. Similarly, Melanchthon, even though he regards Augustine as the best of the fathers, can criticise Augustine for holding that faith is internal renovation rather than apprehension of Christ.  These criticisms appear not only in private correspondence (WA Br 6:99-100, cited together with Luther’s postscript) but also in Melanchthon’s Preface to the 1545 edition of Augustine’s De spiritu et littera (CR 5:803-10).

In addition, as early as the first edition of his Loci (1521), Melanchthon assumes, as a rule of thumb, that “the more recent an author is, the less Scriptural he is.”  He then explains, “Christian doctrine has degenerated into Scholastic trifling, and one does not know whether it is more godless than it is stupid” (19-20).  This loose observation was by mid-16th century developed, by Matthias Flacius (1520-75), into a historiographic methodology and eventually took shape in the form of the Magdeburg Centuries, a monumental but unfinished history of Christianity, documenting, century by century, the slow decline of the church before Luther’s protest.  This is not to imply that the Lutherans had nothing good to say about more recent theologians.  Luther’s attitude to Thomas Aquinas was by no means entirely negative (Janz 1989); and throughout his life he remained deeply appreciative of Bernard of Clairvaux, to whom he referred affectionately as “Pater Bernhardus” (LW 22:388; cf. Posset 1999: 59).

3. Reclaiming the church’s witness

But Luther and his colleagues came to believe that the fathers were useful not merely as an inventory of proof-texts, either illustrating the papacy’s apostasy, or indicating that the Lutheran doctrines were not new but rather the old doctrines brought back to light.  The fathers were also useful as examples of piety.  Towards this end, in 1544, the Lutherans published an edition of the medieval classic, Vitae patrum, but with parts extolling monastic life or contrary to the Lutheran emphasis on justification carefully expurgated.  For this edition Luther himself provided a preface (WA 54:109-111).

Last but not least, this appreciation – both externally necessitated and internally reclaimed – for the value of patristic witness was increased further by the rise of more radical church- and society- reforming programmes.  Of importance here are not only the theologies of the other magisterial reformers, but especially the programmes put forth by the Anabaptists and various anti-Trinitarian movements.  It was with those in mind that Luther observed: “heretics always like to boast of possessing Scripture” (LW 41:45).  And though his response to Karlstad’s and Zwingli’s views of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper was fundamentally scripture-based, he found it necessary also implicitly to invoke the church’s condemnation of Arius and Sabellius (Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525; LW 40:197), as well as Nestorius (Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528; LW 37:212; cf. 41:105).  The Augsburg Confession is more explicit.  Besides Pelagianism, of which the Lutherans routinely accused their Roman adversaries (II), and Manichaeism, with which they were in turn charged by their papal opponents, it denounces the heresies of “the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Mohammedans, and all others like them; also the Samosatenians, old and new” (I), Donatists (VIII), as well as the explicitly mentioned Anabaptists (V, IX).  In addition to rejecting all manners of heresy, Melanchthon invokes the magnus consensus of the church  and, referring to the substantial presence of Christ’s body and blood with the bread and the wine, goes on to state in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (X): “we defend the position received in the entire church [receptam in tota ecclesia].”

The Lutherans were, of course, not unaware of the danger.  Luther, for his part, warned against indiscriminate appeals to the church: “whenever the pope does not have the authority of the Scriptures on his side, he always uses this same argument against us: ‘The church’” (Lectures on Galatians, 1531; LW 26:15).  Although in the early days of his reformatorial career, Luther did several times appeal for vindication to a General Council, at the Leipzig debate with Johannes Eck (1519) he was cornered by his outspoken opponent into admitting that even councils could err.  He maintained this view for the rest of his life, which, as far as he was concerned, rendered the conciliar argument for a council’s canonical authority or hierarchical dignity (over against the pope’s) as ultimately of no consequence.  No council was authorised to make articles of faith anyway; those were established by Scripture alone.  Interesting in this light is, therefore, the mature Luther’s appeal to the fides catholica in his Disputatio de divinitate et humanitate Christi (1540/43; WA 39II:92-121).   In this polemic against Caspar von Schwenckfeld’s docetic monophysitism, Luther notes that Scripture does not always speak in the most fortuitous and helpful way.  As an example he cites the Johanine “The Word was made flesh.”  “In our judgment,” he comments, “it would have been better said, ‘The Word was incarnate,’ or ‘made fleshly.’”  He then goes on to insist that true understanding of Scripture lies not in the words, that is, in their sense necessitated by the grammar, but one must rather interpret the Scriptures “according to theology.”  Luther concludes the theses by asserting: “This is what it means to be a heretic: one who understands the Scriptures otherwise than the Holy Spirit demands.”  What he means by that is not some individual enlightenment but precisely the catholic faith which he invoked in the first thesis.

4. Developments

As can be seen, the process of doctrinal reception under the papacy was not a problem that the early Lutherans simply critiqued and then managed to overcome (as was their hope).  Rather, by the 1540s, their initial ambivalence had been transformed into a methodological problem internal to Lutheran theology – an insoluble tension between, on the one hand, the sufficiency and clarity of Holy Writ and, on the other, the continuing necessity of appealing to, and for this purpose also circumscribing, the catholic faith.  In his treatise, De Ecclesia et autoritate verbi Dei (1539/40; Romans 1992: 239-84), Melanchthon laid the groundwork for all subsequent attempts to overcome this tension.  He notes that the authority of the church extends only as far as teaching and admonishing.  And whenever it is invoked, “one must ask whether [the doctrine under consideration] was the consensus of the true church, agreeing with the Word of God.”  He spells out what he means by that when he puts forth the requirement that dogmas necessary for salvation must have been present in the teaching of the apostles.  Later doctrinal formulations must not only agree with this “divine voice” but also do so “simply and without sophistry.”  In closing Melanchthon reflects quite optimistically on the Lutherans’ own teaching: “it is beyond doubt that the kind of doctrine which we profess is truly the consensus of the catholic church of Christ, as the symbols, the saner synods, and the more learned fathers show.”  Melanchthon’s attempt was continued by his student Martin Chemnitz (1522-86) in his exhaustive Examination of the Council of Trent.  In this work Chemnitz develops a complex typology of ecclesiastical traditions.  He warns, on the one hand, against mistaking “antiquity of error and the multitude of the erring” for an indication of truth (1:219).  On the other hand, he appeals to “the consensus of the true, learned, and purer antiquity,” noting that “no dogma that is new in the churches and in conflict with all of antiquity should be accepted” (1:256-57).  All of these procedures are inevitably tainted with a degree of arbitrariness and circularity.  For this reason, the insistence of subsequent generations on the perfection of Scripture, and later on its inerrancy, can also be seen as an attempt to deal with the tension between Scripture and the growing role of the church’s tradition in its proper interpretation.  Especially in the face of attempts to treat the Bible as (also) a human document (nascent historical criticism), but also vis-à-vis those readings that saw the message of the Bible as from the beginning perverted by the institutional church (anti-Trinitarians) – tradition became increasingly indispensable.  To assert the Scriptures’ perfection and inerrancy was one method of coming to terms with that development, while remaining ostensibly faithful to scriptural sufficiency and clarity.  Still, in their flight from what would be seen as Catholicizing, the Lutherans ended up sharing their commitment to inerrancy with many of the groups which they wanted to place squarely in the heretical camp.

Copyright © 2009 by Piotr J. Malysz