Toward Fruitful Conversation: Follow-up from “Listening to God’s Word”
A symposium on biblical interpretation and approaches to studying the Scriptures was held at the Lutherische Theologische Hochschule, Oberursel (the seminary of the LCMS partner church in Germany) in November 2013. Eight members of the exegetical department of Concordia Seminary attended, with four giving major presentations and two giving responses to other major presentations. Participants from confessional Lutheran churches on four continents participated. A few posts on the conference have already appeared on this site. The presentations, formal responses, and subsequent conversations were highly engaging and productive, and it was determined that the presentations and responses would be published as a collection of essays, edited by Dr. Jorg Salzmann of Oberursel.
In the last week, much has happened online in a handful of social media sites. I hope that this can be, for all of us, an opportunity to study, learn, interact, and strengthen one another in our confession of faith regarding the doctrine of Scripture.
Sometime last week one paper from this conference appeared on a personal blog, without the author’s, the conference organizers’, or the future publisher’s knowledge or permission. It was scanned from a hard copy of a pre-conference draft provided to conference attendees. The version of the essay that circulated on the Internet, without authorization, was written several weeks before the conference. Not all of it was used, much of it is suggestive rather than developed, footnotes (and the clarifications those provide) are mostly absent, and the last section was neither presented nor discussed. It should also be noted that academic conferences, such as this, have specific audiences in mind, have specific questions to be addressed in the papers, and intend to be exploratory and perhaps even provocative, in order to generate discussion and probe where the key areas for further discussion and development are to be found. Such was the nature of this conference, and all of this shapes what is (and what is not) in all of the papers presented.
Furthermore, and troublingly, the manner in which it was presented on the blog and on Facebook was, in the author’s judgment, inaccurate. It was selective, stringing together sentences from different parts of the paper in a slanted manner, and without justification, making insinuations about the content of the paper and the theology of the “Seminex” faculty of the 1960s and 1970s—I completely disagree with both that theological approach and with the blogger’s attempts to connect the two. A “Seminex” theology or theological approach is not present in the paper, neither is an argument for “women’s ordination.” Moreover, neither are taught at Concordia Seminary, and neither will ever be taught at Concordia Seminary.
I wish to make clear that the presenting problem dealt with in my essay is the new edition of the Greek New Testament, which no longer claims to reproduce “the autographs” of the New Testament writings. Previous discussions of the authority of Scripture often based biblical authority in the autographs; if the editions that we use for teaching and preaching do not make that claim, the challenge for us is to maintain the verbal inspiration of Scripture in a way that accounts for the new challenge. That is not to claim that arguments for the inspiration of the autographs are wrong, it is simply to recognize that the way that we have argued needs to be strengthened in light of this new (actually long-standing) reality. My paper makes an argument for maintaining the authority of the biblical text, as it stands, in light of the challenges of these new approaches.
I request that the unauthorized draft copy of the paper be removed from any website, that it not be distributed or printed, in electronic or paper format, without the author’s explicit permission. This is basic courtesy and, frankly, copyright law.
It is unfortunate that I was not asked by anyone for a copy of the paper (and to this point, only one person, who I do not know, has asked me for a copy). I would have made clear that the final section, on 1 Cor 14, was not presented at the conference, is clearly a set of notes, without footnotes, and is not at all a full argument. It is only making some observations on one aspect of 1 Cor 14, and noting that some previous argumentation needs to be strengthened, in particular with careful attention to 1 Tim 2. That section was never intended to be published, and had anyone requested the essay from me, it would not have been included.
A Way Forward
Having made that request, I am proposing what I hope will be a fruitful way forward for those who wish to engage the topic, because the issues it attempts to deal with are too important to be handled in the way that they have been in the last week. Blogs and Facebook are far from the ideal place for such discussion. At some point—soon, I hope—our church body will have a conversation about whether we really want to pursue theological discussion—and express our unity in Christ—through the communication- and relationship-warping medium of social media.
To repeat, the goal of the paper was to develop a way to maintain the dogma of the church regarding the inspiration and authority of Scripture in light of the recent publication of a new edition of the standard Greek New Testament used by all students, pastors, and scholars. This new edition has a different approach from all previous editions, which problematizes the way that some Lutherans have talked about the authority of Scripture. The paper was not proposing that the Lutheran approach is wrong, or that we can no longer speak of the Scriptures as inspired or authoritative. Nor is it, by any measure, an attempt to discuss De Scriptura Sacra in its entirety. Rather, it had a single purpose and question in mind: to find a way to confess the Scriptures (especially the New Testament) as authoritative in light of the recent discoveries of manuscripts, shifts in methodologies, etc., of the study of the text of the New Testament. Far from denying the authority of Scripture, it sought to maintain that authority over and against claims made in semi-popular books such as Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus.
I am asking everyone to withhold discussion of the paper until the publication of the genuine version of the paper, likely by late spring (Lord willing). These topics are too important to discuss in the way that they have been. It is, I think, unfortunate that confessional Lutherans of the last generation or two have not, by and large, discussed the locus De Scriptura Sacra in detail or in interaction with the challenges raised in the last 15-20 years. There has been both sensationalistic media frenzy over discoveries like the “Gospel of Judas” and the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” as well as the happy discovery of dozens of Greek New Testament manuscripts that reach back now into the second century and give us a far more complete picture of the New Testament text than we had a generation ago. There are a few attempts, and I would like to present some bibliography below as we all engage in this important discussion.
For those who do not have access to the more academic works cited below, here are several articles, resources and presentations, that I have been involved in that defend the authority of Scripture against recent challenges:
“Revelation and Inspiration,” The Lutheran Witness (Sep. 2006): 6-11.
“How We Got the Bible” DVD/video series, Lutheran Hour Ministries, 2009.
“The Bible on Trial: A Reasonable Doubt” DVD/video series, Lutheran Hour Ministries, 2011. I would especially encourage people to watch this one-hour video.
“Lost Books?” DVD/video series (featured speaker), Lutheran Hour Ministries, 2013.
I have also presented Bible studies and seminars on dozens of occasions on this topic, primarily in LCMS congregations but also outside the LCMS. These are typically not recorded, but The Reporter had an article about a 2011 event held at Resurrection Lutheran Church, Apex, NC: “Is the Bible Reliable? Did We Get the Right Bible?”
In addition, I would indulge your patience with specific background on my essay. I have been studying and publishing on the text of the New Testament and on the doctrine of Scripture for some time now, including work with my teachers, Dr. James Voelz in his hermeneutics book, and Dr. Ronald Feuerhahn in the book we jointly edited on Hermann Sasse (more on those below). I have presented the basic contours of the argument of this latest paper in various conferences over the last ten years, and have had very helpful interaction and conversation with colleagues from the various Concordia Universities and both seminaries:
“Still Spoken Against: The Need to Restore a Lutheran Approach to the Canon of Scripture,” at The 2005 LCMS Theology Professors Convocation, Dallas, March 4-6, 2005.
“Jesus and the Gnostic Gospels,” Plenary paper at The 2007 LCMS Theology Professors Convocation, Dallas, March 2-4, 2007. (published as “Jesus and the Gnostic Gospels,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 71,2 (2007): 121-143.)
“Why Are They Changing My Bible? The Upcoming Revision of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament,” at the LCMS Theology Professors Conference, June 2-4, 2010, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.
“How Can the Bible be Authoritative if We’re Not Sure We Have the Right One?” at The 21st Annual Theological Symposium, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, September 20-21, 2010.
The latest paper is virtually identical in argumentation to the material presented in the two essays from 2010. I point all this out to make clear that the content of the paper under discussion was not developed on a whim, or without significant conversation with respected colleagues over several years. I will not claim, of course, that the work is finished—and new discoveries and methods will continue to arise. The paper will be presented in its published form as a further contribution to the necessary work of maintaining a high view of Scripture in our teaching and preaching.
To that end, I will propose a few opportunities to discuss this topic.
First, I am providing a bibliography of books and essays on this topic, which may not be familiar to many pastors.
The Text of the New Testament
The complexity of the study of the Greek text of the New Testament means that I cannot refer you to a brief study in order to provide basic familiarity with the manuscripts and methodologies that scholars have used over the last 500 years (the first printed Greek New Testament appeared in 1516; Luther used the 1518 edition). In particular, the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland text is quite new, and descriptions of its methods have not yet incorporated into introductory books on the topic. One book on the topic that should be accessible to most pastors is:
Robert F. Hull, Jr., The Story of the New Testament Text: Movers, Materials, Motives, Methods, and Models (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010).
A more thorough (and technical) introduction is David Parker, An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and their Texts (Cambridge, 2008).
I was asked to supply an overview of the new Nestle-Aland edition (published over a year ago) for the Logia blog, which is available here; a cross-post to concordiatheology.org resulted in some fruitful clarifying dialogue. It contains, in simpler form, much of what I lay out in the first section of the most recent essay.
In addition, one should consult the introduction to the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece itself for a summary of the approach, as well as the web site of the edition. There is also a detailed, technical PowerPoint that describes the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method—from that page, in the links on the right click “CBGM Intro. Presentation”).
The Authority of Scripture
Foundational to my own study of this topic are essays written by Herrmann Sasse, between 1948 and the 1960s, but not widely available in English until 1995. They were first published as:
Scripture and the Church: Selected Essays of Hermann Sasse. Ed. Jeffrey J. Kloha and Ronald R. Feuerhahn. Concordia Seminary Monograph Series, no. 2. St. Louis, 1995.
These essays were translated and circulated in various ways in Lutheran circles in the 1950s and 1960s, but as Sasse continued to work on the doctrine of Scripture he changed his position on inerrancy (as he understood it) from one that limited it to “theological matters” in 1948 to one that extended inerrancy to all of Scripture by the early 1950s. Unfortunately, his shift was not well known (or, perhaps intentionally ignored) by some in the LCMS, including some 1960s-era professors at Concordia Seminary. This shift in Sasse’s teaching, and the subsequent controversies, was first documented and demonstrated in my essay in that volume, “Hermann Sasse Confesses the Doctrine De Scriptura Sacra” (pp. 337-423). This conclusion has been accepted numerous times since, including by Kurt Marquart (“Hermann Sasse and the Mystery of Sacred Scripture, in Hermann Sasse: A Man for Our Times? CPH, 1998), Matthew Harrison (Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Vol. 1, CPH 2013) and in a lengthy discussion and summary by Michael Müller and Gottfried Herrmann, “Relative oder absolut Irttumslos? Zu Veränderungen in Hermann Sasses Schriftlehre,” Lutherische Beiträge 16.2 (2011), 110-28. The essays by Sasse, set within their proper historical context, are in my view among the most helpful attempts by confessional Lutherans to fully articulate a doctrine of Scripture both theologically, historically, and over and against modernist claims. Anyone interested in clearly understanding inspiration, canon, and the Christocentric nature of Scripture should read Sasse’s discussion (along with that of Robert Preus, see below). My essay on Sasse is available on the seminary faculty’s website: concordiathelogy.org. On that page you can also access part of the article by Müller and Herrmann.
Preus, Robert D. The Inspiration of Scripture. St. Louis: CPH, 1957. (Pp. xi-xv).
The entire book remains the finest single study of the topic of inspiration; my paper does not deal with “inspiration” in ipso, so the section of this book that is most relevant to my discussion is in the preface, pp. xi-xv, where he deals with canonical issues. Bear in mind that “inspiration” and “canon” are related but distinct issues. Two quotes from the preface may spur you to read further:
- “The views of the dogmaticians regarding canonicity seem to misunderstand and therefore fail to meet the issues of the question as they existed in the ancient church.” (p. xi)
- “Their views (starting with Gerhard) show a marked departure from the position not only of Luther, but also of Chemnitz” (et al.) (p. xi)
I would also recommend one of Sasse’s later articles on Scripture: “Inspiration and Inerrancy—Some Preliminary Thoughts” from 1961. It was reprinted in the the Spring 2010 Concordia Journal, available here on concordiatheology.org [edit: this link is expired due to copyright; the essay is now available here]. Incidentally, that issue also contains the excellent arcticle by Martin Franzmann, “Seven Theses on Reformation Hermeneutics,” and brief observer by Dr. Joel Okamoto.
The Lutheran Distinction of Homolegoumena and Antilegomena
Most pastors, let alone laity, seem to lack awareness of this classic Lutheran distinction. It allowed Luther to keep central the Christological approach to Scripture, and it was most clearly set forth in the first several books of Chemnitz’s Examen—this is still the clearest and soundest treatment of the topic:
Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, trans. F. Kramer, vol I, (CPH 1971), 36-216.
A key quote from Chemnitz, which I found helpful as I prepared my essay, is this:
- “No dogma which does not have a certain and clear foundation in the canonical books dare be constructed from these [antilegomena] books. Nothing that is in controversy may be proved from these books if there are no proofs and confirmations in the canonical books. But what is said in these books must be explained and understood according to the analogy of what is clearly set down in the canonical books. There can be no doubt that this is the meaning of the ancient Church.”
More recent study of the topic, which confirms Luther’s and Chemnitz’s approach, include:
Robert D. Preus, The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism, vol. 1. St. Louis: CPH, 1970. (Pp. 304-306).
J. A. O. Preus II, “The New Testament Canon in the Lutheran Dogmaticians,” Springfielder 25 (1961): 8-33. (The Springfielder was the predecessor to the current Concordia Theological Quarterly).
This entire essay is important, and sadly seems to be unknown among many pastors. His conclusion is exactly what I was arguing in my essay:
- “The same Scriptures which convinced the early Christians that they were truly God-breathed books convince us of the same, if we approach them with the attitude which Christ requires of all those who will worship Him and be His disciples. Perhaps the Lord in His wisdom has dealt with the Canon in the same way as He did with the text. There is confusion, uncertainty, and a host of unanswered questions; yet the Scripture continues to accomplish its mighty acts among men” (p. 30).
The issue is also picked up and summarized in:
James W. Voelz, What Does This Mean? Principles of Biblical Interpretation, second, revised edition 2013 (CPH), the chapter, “The Canon in Hermeneutical Perspective—Part I,” pp. 150-54. In addition, Voelz discusses the problem addressed by my essay in a brief chapter, “What is the ‘Original’ Text?” (pp. 79-80).
Because this seems to be a Lutheran theological approach that is unfamiliar to many pastors, we have reposted the article by J A O Preus II on this website [edit: that link has expired, but the essay is available here].The article had previously been reprinted in the 2010 Concordia Journal, to make it more widely available.
Recent Essays by LCMS Theologians on Scripture
The most recent full-length study of the authority of Scripture by an LCMS theologian is:
Peter Nafzger, “These Are Written”: Toward a Cruciform Theology of Scripture (Pickwick Press, 2013). Available from amazon.com.
Nafzger seeks to describe how the work of Christ, specifically his death and resurrection, shapes the Christocentric nature of Scripture and its authority.
In August 2013, a conference on hermeneutics was held at Westfield House, Cambridge, which gathered confessional Lutherans from primarily northern Europe. These essays were published in the last few weeks in the volume:
Built on the Foundation of the Apostles and Prophets: Sola Scriptura in Context. The Second International Symposium on Lutheran Theology, Westfield House, Cambridge, 15-18 Aug, 2012, ed. Tapani Simojoki (The Evangelical Lutheran Church of England / North European Luther Academy, 2013).
Two essays from this volume are of particular note in this discussion:
David Scaer, “The Word Was God: Inerrancy or Christology” (pp. 45-62; response by Daniel Johansson)
In typically provocative fashion, Scaer walks through various documents produced in the 1970s on the topic of inerrancy, including some to which both he and Robert Preus were contributors. The entire essay is full of trenchant observations, and in particular his footnoted comments on pp. 51 and 57 relate directly to issues of homolegoumena / antilegomena and the difficulty of pinning down, precisely, the “event” of the inspiration of a given biblical text. See also his discussion on p. 61.
A second essay, by Rev. John Bombaro, also discusses the nature of biblical authority, and in particular, a way of describing the authority that is common among American Evangelicals: “Biblicism and the Imminent Death of American Evangelicalism,” pp. 151-172 (the paper did not have a respondent at the conference).
Bombaro’s essay is also thought-provoking. He discusses both historically and philosophically the basis of an Evangelical approach to Scripture and lays out its limitations. His discussions of “Biblicism” are well worth considering. In addition, Bombaro, as does Scaer, discusses some events that occurred in the 1970s as individuals in the LCMS and Evangelicals jointly produced statements on Scripture.
This new volume may not be well known; it is available inexpensively online here. In addition, the Concordia Seminary library has copies and would be quite happy to lend it to you (LCMS rostered workers have special lending privileges).
2: Online Book Club, and perhaps Workshop
My second offer is to host an online “Book Club” as part of Concordia Seminary’s new effort to provide helpful continuing education resources to pastors. In these Book Clubs the participants read the resources, meet online for discussion, and write reaction papers and a short project of the material might be used in their ministry setting. If there is interest, I would be willing to put together a list of resources from the bibliography provided above and offer it in the spring term (which begins March 10).
If there is still interest, I could offer a second Book Club after the essays from the Oberursel symposium are published.
Related, I would be willing to gather the other members of the exegetical department who read papers and host a one-day workshop to discuss the contents with anyone willing to come to St. Louis.
3: LCMS Theology Professors Convocation
Third, there is another LCMS Theology Professors Convocation, tentatively scheduled for late May, 2014 at Concordia, St. Paul. I will ask the convocation organizers if there is interest in having a workshop to discuss, again (see above), the content of my essay with any interested theology professors from the seminaries and Concordia universities.
Finally, my hope is, in spite of the manner in which this essay went “public” and the insinuations that were made, that this does provide us all an opportunity to gain greater clarity and confidence as we discuss the Scriptures. We must work together to continue to confess faithfully in our generation the Word made flesh, who is revealed in his Word and preached to us and to the nations until he comes again.
My apologies for the length of this piece, and the defensive tone it has in places.