Strong on Doctrinal Topics But Weak on the Books of the Bible
The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) is strong on doctrinal topics but weak on the books of the Bible. After teaching at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis for 35 years I’ve come to that conclusion. In the Synod those trained theologically can typically articulate our orthodox doctrinal position and can work with Lutheran concepts. They can explain, for example, the differences between deus revelatus and deus absconditus. But they can’t tell you the first thing about Haggai or Chronicles or 1 John. The situation is not a case of false doctrine. It’s just weird.
The theological debates that take place in Synod typically deal with Luther and Luther’s theological position. We debate Luther. “What was Luther’s position on the ministry? Did he have a high view or a low view or in-between? Did the later Luther change his position? Did Luther teach the third use of the law? Well, the expression ‘third use of the law’ never appears in Luther’s works. Yeah, but what about the concept? Yeah, but you have to distinguish between the early Luther and the later Luther. What was Luther’s view on the liturgy? Did he advocate high liturgy or low liturgy? What were his liturgical practices? Yeah, but what about the later Luther?” After a while I want to respond: “What does the Bible teach? You know, the Bible, that book collecting dust on the bookshelf.” By listening to our debates one would get the impression that we are a Society for Luther Studies.
I have taught the books of the Bible to laypeople for decades, and I can speak from personal experience. Our laypeople typically do not know the books of the Bible. I remember once when I taught a series on the Minor Prophets. A solid Missouri Synod Lutheran layman, about 85 years old, sat in the front row every week. At the end of the series he told me that his pastors had faithfully taught him Lutheran doctrine many times over, but no pastor had ever taught him the Minor Prophets. I wondered to myself, “How can this be, a solid, life-long Lutheran was never taught all the books of the Bible?”
Occasionally I visit other churches to hear a variety of pastors preach. Sometimes I am thrilled to hear a solid, textual sermon. But I am surprised how often I hear topical sermons without a specific text in a specific book of the Bible. The sermons are doctrinally sound. I am not hearing LCMS preachers preach false doctrine. But often there is no functioning biblical text from a biblical book in the pulpit.
It seems to me that in the Missouri Synod the 66 books of the Bible take a backseat. Yet, we need to remind ourselves of the obvious. First and foremost, the Bible is a collection of books, not a collection of favorite verses or doctrinal topics but a library of books. And each book needs to be treated as a book, read in a holistic way by attending to how it flows from the opening verse to the closing verse. That is simply respecting the shape of the inspired Scriptures themselves. The Sacred Scriptures come to us in the form of books.
If Martin Luther were here today, my hunch is that he would agree. After all, he wanted the people to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures themselves and not only learn summary statements of what the entire Bible teaches. That is why he translated the Scriptures into the language of the people. That is why he preached and lectured through books of the Bible.
The books of the Bible are primary literature, while summaries of their doctrinal teaching are secondary literature. Yes, people have to be taught what all of Scripture teaches, the articles of Faith, the corpus doctrinae, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Faith. The Confessors of the Augsburg Confession realized that. But that desideratum should not overshadow or eclipse the biblical books themselves. The written Word of God comes in the shape of books, and we should honor and love that shape and teach the Word according to that shape.
Have no fear. The exegetes are coming to the rescue! Pardon me for a shameless commercial. The Concordia Commentary series has been putting out excellent Bible commentaries for over 20 years now. We are grateful to Jeff Gibbs for his third volume on Matthew just out. Twenty nine biblical books have been covered already plus parts of four others (see them all at cph.org). It is a great series for every seminarian, pastor and congregational library to own.
Our motto of sola scriptura sets up the expectation that our churches and ministers actually theologize that way, that in these churches the pastor is all about the Ministry of the Word, not “social justice” or “inclusivity” or feel-good psychology, but the Ministry of the Word (Acts 6). That requires devotion to both the orthodox corpus doctrinae and the books of the Bible.
John March 7, 2019
Amen! I agree with all that was in this post. It was only after I graduated from seminary that I began to go book by book, teaching the narrative of Scripture in conjunction with Lutheran doctrine. It’s still remarkable and a joyous thing to see how they fit together so well. Keep preaching it, Professor Raabe!
Scott A Lemmermann March 7, 2019
I spent much time preaching and teaching the Bible, not only to Lutherans but also to non-Lutherans. I was told several times that I was too deep. That is not a compliment but a confession. I pray we are more a people of the Book than others who who have no Word but claim to be people of a book. His word endures forever.
Matt March 7, 2019
I completely agree with what Prof. Raabe has said. In my ministry I have encountered a hunger among God’s people to study the books of the Bible, and to move beyond some of the “cleaned up” Sunday School stories that they have both learned and taught over the years. It is wonderful to see the inner “light bulb,” including my own, go on when a familiar account is placed into its Biblical context while moving through a book of the Bible one chapter at a time. I have also found this to be an excellent practice for daily devotions. Simply to pick a book of the Bible and read it through one chapter a day.
Daniel Ross March 7, 2019
This is most certainly true. However, I think it is because we were trained to synthesize the Bible together in relief of the American Evangelical practice of often leaving out complimentary texts when expounding through a book or passage and leading to heterodox theology.
Jim March 7, 2019
Maybe my church is an exception, but we’ve been doing the Lifelight series twice a year for over 30 years. Very in-depth Bible studies. We also have at least one Sunday morning study on a book of the Bible year round.
I’d venture to guess that the churches that don’t teach the Bible are not teaching the Lutheran Confessions, either. They are probably teaching (and preaching) moralistic, therapeutic Deism. In other words self-improvement, motivational topics, not the Bible OR the Confessions.
John March 8, 2019
I am firmly against the new moralistic and therapeutic deism It’s an interesting guess, but just that-a guess. I see this therapeutic deism in some preaching series that are topical.
Pastor Tom Eckstein March 8, 2019
Thanks so much for this article! I agree 100% In fact, I have an opinion that not everyone may appreciate. Simply put, I wonder if preaching strictly on the lectionary (although better than topical sermons without a text!) has led to some of our biblical illiteracy. Depending on which text of the lectionary (OT, Epistle, Gospel) the pastor may preach on, the other texts of the day are often not incorporated in the sermon. Also, even if a pastor preaches on one text of the lectionary (let’s say, the Gospel reading) throughout the year, these texts are often arranged in such a way that they do not fit the actual “theological flow” of that book of the bible. Finally, whatever lectionary one uses, these lectionaries often leave out texts of various books of the bible (especially OT!) that our people never hear from the pulpit!
Because of this problem, I often avoid the lectionary and preach through an entire book of the bible (although I do tie the sermon and hymns into the liturgical season of the church year). I’m currently preaching through the Gospel of John. I’ve preached through Romans, Luke, Philippians, Colossians and other books. One time I did a several month sermon series on the Minor Prophents – and my people loved it because most admitted they were completely unfamiliar with the content of these OT books.
Knowing and being able to articulate our Lutheran theology is well and good, but let’s be sure we are even more familiar with the Scriptures from which our Lutheran theology flows!
John March 8, 2019
Agreed. Lectionary preaching and lessons assume a lot of literacy on the part of the hearer. Professor Schmelder made an impassioned case for only lectionary preaching. It does prevent the pastor from preaching on pet texts or topics. It does force you to preach texts that you normally wouldn’t However Tom, you do point out the downsides well. Plus, a specific congregation may need a specific book preached to them. Anybody tackle Leviticus? No joke.
Rev. Peter Glock March 8, 2019
Tom, is it lectionary preaching or is it topical preaching? The fact is that the lectionary makes it very easy to preach topically – especially in the epistles, with their lectio continua reading spaced over the three years. Preaching through the Gospel of John, too, can be done either topically or exegetically, if you will. I, too, have preached series’ on all these books, but from from the standpoint of lectionary preaching. I guessing that the difference between the two is not all that noticeable.
I would have to question you about your contention that sometimes the lectionary presents the lessons from a book in a way that does not always fit the “theological flow” of the book. An example or two of that would be appreciated.
Now an observation for you, Dr. Raabe: I remember being somewhat confused when, for one of my STM courses, the assigned professor for a systematics course (Christology) was an exegete (you!) I don’t know if this was part of a trend at the time, but maybe if we had some more systematics guys, or historians, or practical professors teaching exegetical courses occasionally, and vice verse, the issue which you raise might be helped. Thanks for your thoughts.
Jennifer March 8, 2019
Somehow it seems that some pastors are able to preach an entire sermon without speaking of Christ. I heard a series on the small catechism (which is Biblically and Christologically based) yet somehow I did not hear much at all about Christ. I think some pastors get so far into the specific doctrines that they forget to apply the Gospel to the congregation and instead speak ABOUT various topics. We need to also hear the actual words that we are forgiven not just about how Lutherans and Christians in general should VIEW baptism or prayer or whatever topic it may be.
John Rasmussen March 9, 2019
Wow! I’ve been feeling this for a long time, but not always able to put words to it. This past year our church began a sermon series in which we challenged the whole church to read through the Bible in a year. I just got done preaching 2 Chronicles 36, Daniel, and now Nehemiah and Ezra this Sunday. It’s been rewarding for me to dig into the narrative as a preacher, but even more I think the people have benefited from seeing how the whole story fits together. My hope is that when we return to the lectionary in the fall that those little pericopes will make more sense within the whole.
I also wonder how many of our divisions and arguments in the LCMS would lessen or even go away if we made calm, consistent study of the Word together our main priority. Thanks again!
Paul McCain March 11, 2019
I’ve been thinking about Dr. Raabe’s blog post since I read it.
Have we been too facile with our doctrinal assertions and debates to the point of letting them float free from serious engagement with the Biblical text? I believe here I would agree with Dr. Raabe on that point. Wholeheartedly. The crisis in Biblical literacy is very real and very dangerous!
On the other hand, I’ve seen the dangers of allowing “exegesis” to float free from the task of doing Biblical theology, not merely exegesis. How often has the new preacher been disappointed to use a modern Bible commentaries that is more concerned with pleasing the Society of Biblical Literature, with exhaustive (and exhausting) recitations of every possible opinion on a text in Scripture without finally delivering the “Thus says the Lord!” required when the Bible is used in actual parish ministry. And thank you Dr. Raabe for your pointing the reader to a Bible commentary that exists chiefly for the service of the preacher and his ministry!
It has always struck me how Martin Luther, Doctor of Bible, spends a lot of time doing what would only best be described today as “systematic theology” as he works his way through the text of Scripture. And I’ve been struck in the same way while reading the work of the great Lutheran dogmatician, Johann Gerhard. His “systematic theology” is as much an exercise in deep and serious engagement in the intricate details of the Biblical’s text grammar, syntax, the rest of the Scripture as it is a “dogmatic text.”
Today’s dogmatics strikes me often as musings on a philosophy that is Christian, more or less, engaging in all manner of esoterica of the history of doctrine, etc. than delivering a genuine and authentic Biblical theology, and a deeply confessional and orthodox Lutheran Biblical Theology. As the Synod’s finest systematic theologian, Francis Pieper, put it years ago, standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before him, as do we all, “Quod non est Biblicum, non est Theologicum.” What is not Biblical is not theological. An exegetical study may provide hours of engaging scholarship in intricate word histories or analysis of most arcane of Greek grammatical points, but if that is where it ends, it is not theology. Or, a systematic theological text may be able quite handily to cross every philosophical “t” and dot the “i” of every nuanced historical doctrinal debate, but if it is not Biblical, it is not theology.
Thank you, Dr. Raabe for much food for thought.
Joachim March 18, 2019
As Lutherans though, we are not Biblicists. This is a Reformed view. Some books of the Bible are more important than others. Romans and Galatians are more important than any of the antilegomena or the minor prophets. While sola scriptura is one of the phases of the Reformation, sola Christus is the chief of those phrases. We are to teach Christ and Him crucified for sinners apart from works and grasped by God given faith chiefly. In LCMS churches I have seen that teach on some of the less known Biblical books, they generally have weak doctrinal knowledge, which invariably leads to bad practice along with a pietistic/mystical view of the Scriptures. So yes, we should be better at studying the Bible, yet we cannot split our main focus of teaching the Small Catechism.
Joel T Dieterichs April 16, 2019
Just catching up to this article and thread! I concur and I concur. Our Winkles continue to be sad examples of the truth presented by Dr. Raabe… yet I understand what Dr. McCain is saying. It’s difficult to cull anything new from a text that some brothers have translated, covered, preached on, and reflected on more than 20 times (I would estimate) in their long ministries. What would I tell them as a pastor only 15 years removed from Seminary? And so one brother had the right idea: simply reading the masters like Gerhard who couple the Scripture with applicable insights into our doctrine, belief, and practice. He also read one for the sermon. Because, what would/could I say that would be compelling for them?
Dean Pittelko December 12, 2022
As usual, tardy to the party so no one will probably see this. Just to throw my two cents in though, because they are an important two cents I believe, I will add the following. What is the purpose of the sermon? Proliferation of biblical knowledge or biblical information in general or specifically? No. Is it to bring the congregation members up to speed in their understanding of biblical literature, history or cultural trends? No. It is the preaching of Christ and Him crucified and the application of the Law and the Gospel to the lives of the hearers. I resonate with the above comment made that we are not biblicists as Lutherans – we do not hold to a “flat” view of Scripture, that all Scripture is of equal value just because it is the Word of God [a Reformed theology of the Word]. The Gospel has primacy! The old Lutheran practice of preaching on the Holy Gospel each Sunday was in some regard a recognition of this. As a humble and respectful former student of Dr. Raabe, I would nonetheless heartily disagree with his conclusions in principle. I do not have the opportunity to hear very many other preachers, so I cannot comment on what the situation is “out there” in the preaching that happens in other congregations. It may very well be that a careful job with exegesis is not happening. As to the “what” is being preached on though, there is good reason we have a lectionary. It is Christologically based in both Old and New Testament lections. And I have very strong objections to the notion that the sermon is the time to familiarize the congregation with every corner of the Holy Scriptures. Yes, solus Christus is a cornerstone of the Lutheran reformation too, even if it not always mentioned explicitly. It is always assumed at a minimum!
Paul Raabe December 14, 2022
I am struck by Martin Luther’s sermons.
He preached from the Old Testament,
and he did expository preaching.